Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 22 January 2002


December Monitoring

Chaulnes Area

Health Crisis in Hospitals

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.


December Monitoring

Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that he wishes to make a statement on the December monitoring round.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Dr Farren):

On behalf of the Executive, I wish to make a statement on public spending allocations in 2001-02 following the December monitoring round.

At their meeting on 18 January 2002, the Executive decided on some reallocations of expenditure for the short time that remains in the financial year. Those reallocations make use of the resources available from changes in the estimated requirements of Departments that emerged in the December monitoring round.

The Programme for Government has guided our prioritisation of the allocations. Inevitably at this late stage of the year, however, our focus has been on making necessary changes to estimated requirements and fine-tuning allocations, rather than on any policy changes or new priorities.

The December monitoring round completes the process of considering what revisions might be necessary or desirable to amend Estimates provision in the current year. The process for the passage of the first Budget Bill, which addresses the spring Supplementary Estimates for all Departments, must begin now.

This monitoring round is governed by the timetable for the first Budget Bill, which is tight every year. All the stages of Assembly consideration of the spring Supplementary Estimates and the Budget Bill must be completed in time to secure Royal Assent before the end of the financial year, yet we cannot realistically begin this process any earlier than mid-December, as we must take account of the latest information on spending plans from Departments.

Some reallocations are possible later through the February monitoring round, but those are constrained by the ceilings set in the Estimates, which rule out any large-scale switches between Departments. Therefore the issues addressed in this monitoring round will be the last that can be reflected in Supplementary Estimates for this financial year.

The amount available for reallocation is £73 million. Once again there are several reasons for the amount’s being so high at this stage of the financial year. We would normally expect to have a substantial amount, but several factors have yielded substantial resources for reallocation now.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development surrendered £12·5 million primarily because of the impact of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, which disrupted planned activity and delayed the obtaining of European Union approval for certain programmes.

The Department of Education needs £13 million less than planned for threshold payments to teachers following the teachers’ pay settlement agreed last January. Against this reduction in the estimated accruals cost of the threshold payments, the Department will face a pressure of £5·5 million in 2002-03, and I will return to that later.

The Department of Employment and Learning identified several easements amounting to £12·7 million, most notably in its New Deal and Jobskills programmes.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment can surrender a net £8·6 million from industrial development grants and capital receipts after allowing for the reallocation of funds to meet a number of inescapable contractual obligations in other aspects of assistance to industry.

Elsewhere several Departments have identified a range of additional receipts from fees and charges and disposal of assets.

Before I refer to the bids received, I will point out issues affecting 2002-03, as they relate to the approach the Executive have agreed for this monitoring round.

The revised Budget for 2002-03 was constructed on the basis that we could, without undue risk, allocate some £40 million of spending power for planned carry- forward into 2002-03 from anticipated underspending this year and also set aside £8 million of that anticipated underspending to meet urgent pressures in the Health Service. This latter allocation to health is shown in the table of allocations in the annex to my statement, as it has to be funded from the spending power available now.

In proposing this approach in September, my predecessor, Mark Durkan, made it clear that it would be possible to manage resources in the September and December monitoring rounds, and also during 2002-03, and to make good these assumptions. I am pleased to report that we are now in a position to confirm this by adding £5·7 million from the resources now available to us to the £21·3 million we set aside in the September round. This leaves a balance of £13 million to be found in the February monitoring round.

In taking this approach, the Executive have considered carefully the need to address positively the difficulties which the Health Service is currently facing.

However, we also need to be realistic about the amount that can be spent in this financial year. In other words, we need to strike a balance between ensuring that we are responding to immediate problems in the short term and making sure that our longer-term spending plans for next year are properly resourced.

Departments lodged bids for additional resources in this monitoring round totalling over £98 million. The majority of those bids represent changes in estimates of requirements since the Budget for 2001-02 was approved in December 2000. Some have arisen from the need to address new cost pressures. It is not surprising that the bids are smaller than would be the case at other stages, given that there are only a few months remaining in this year.

Given the substantial amounts available, the Executive have decided to meet a very large proportion of these bids, amounting to some £59 million. Together with the £8 million already allocated to health and the £5·7 million needed to complete the planned carry-over for 2002-03, they account for the total resources of £73 million available.

I will say a little about the additional allocations for each Department. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will receive an additional £9·8 million, £7·1 million of which is to meet the additional costs of compensation allowances arising from animal disease, mainly brucellosis and tuberculosis. Provision has also been made for some further costs arising from the foot-and-mouth disease crisis and BSE.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will receive funding to assist smaller museums and will retain receipts from the sale of some surplus property to undertake pressing maintenance work within the public library estate.

In the September monitoring round, Mark Durkan announced that the Executive had agreed to set aside £1·9 million for the deficit in funding for the Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland (MAGNI), subject to an examination of the circumstances and factors which gave rise to this deficit. The sum of £1·1 million represents an accumulated deficit in recurrent funding, and the Executive have agreed to confirm the allocation of resources to that, subject to MAGNI and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure agreeing a recovery plan with my Department and the Economic Policy Unit in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to secure cost savings and greater financial stability. This could involve re-examining the scope for rationalisation and centralisation of support services to see if the economies assumed when the merger of the three previous organisations was approved will be realised.

The balance of £0·8 million is needed for maintenance work at the museums. The Executive have agreed that we should confirm £0·5 million of this because some of the work needed is health and safety related and particularly urgent. However, the balance of £0·3 million will now be used for other purposes and has been taken into account in the allocations I am announcing today.

The Department of Education is receiving funding for the education element of the north Belfast initiative. This will address the needs of schools and young people in north Belfast and help rebuild community relations. The Youth Service is also receiving funding, primarily to address health and safety issues and to meet urgent equipment needs.

10.45 am

As I said earlier, the Department of Education has also bid for £5·5 million to enable the cost of threshold payments to teachers to be fully met in 2002-03. It has surrendered £13 million in the current year in respect of the same payments. This is largely a technical issue, and we have agreed that it is not necessary to set aside money for this purpose now as there is time for this to be covered from the February monitoring round or from routine end-year flexibility. However, to enable the Department to plan on a firm basis, we have given a commitment that funding for these payments will be allocated in 2002-03. This is a further example of how we are ensuring that in-year resources are being targeted at current priorities and pressures and minimising the amount of planned carry-over into next year.

The Department for Employment and Learning is receiving an allocation of £3·3 million. This will be used mainly to meet the needs of the learndirect network following the closure of individual learning accounts. It will also provide an advance grant to the Lisburn Institute to overcome difficulties there.

The Local Enterprise Development Unit (LEDU), in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is being provided with £2 million to meet projected client claims and fund two new programmes. Elsewhere, the Department is reallocating funding originally provided for industrial development grants to assist industry in other areas where some inescapable contractual obligations have arisen due partly to the world economic recession and the impact of 11 September.

There is also an allocation for the Department of Finance and Personnel to cover the initial procurement and implementation costs of accounting systems to support a common approach to the provision of accounting services across all Departments. This will be more economical than developing separate systems for all 11 Departments.

The Executive have, as always, paid particular attention to Health Service needs, and they are acutely aware of the pressures which are causing such deep concern across the community. In recognition of that, we have decided to allocate £7·8 million primarily to meet cost pressures in health and personal social services. This allocation is in addition to the £8 million which we had already agreed to allocate to the Health Service and which Mark Durkan announced on 3 December when he presented the revised Budget for 2002-03 to the Assembly. Provision for that is now being made in this monitoring round. Taken together, these allocations will enable urgent medical equipment to be purchased by trusts, and they will meet costs arising from higher-than-planned levels of service activity, junior doctors’ contracts and consultants’ payments, as well as address pressures in pharmacies, laboratories and domiciliary care. They will also cover a shortfall in trusts’ projected income from GP fundholders.

The funding will be of real and immediate benefit to those in need of treatment and care, but many people will ask why we are not doing more, especially when we have seen so vividly the scale of the problems being faced in some acute hospitals. At this late stage in the financial year only limited amounts of additional funding can usefully be directed towards addressing the most immediate pressures. The Executive have looked carefully at this and listened carefully to advice from the Minister, Ms de Brún. We need to understand better the reasons for the underlying problems in the Health Service, and we need to develop appropriate strategies to address them.

While we need to respond to the particular difficulties that we are now facing, we must also actively seek long-term solutions rather than quick fixes.

The Department of the Environment is being allocated funding to meet the costs of producing the Belfast metropolitan area plan. It has also been necessary to add £14 million to the Department for Regional Development’s budget to meet a range of unavoidable cost pressures in public transport and in the Roads Service and the Water Service.

The Department for Social Development is being allocated £4·9 million to meet a range of pressures — most notably to cover a projected £3 million increase in applications for the special purchase of evacuated dwellings (SPED) scheme arising from recent increases in civil disturbances. This provides more tangible evidence of the financial and social cost, which is a direct consequence of the unrest that affects so many in our community.

These are costs that we must meet. However, I am sure that Members agree that it is deeply regrettable that we should have to do so when there are so many pressing needs in our public services, especially in health, education and transport. To complete the allocations, an additional £0·4 million is being provided to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

As I explained earlier, these allocations largely represent the fine-tuning of estimated requirements across Departments. They are routine reallocations of spending power to move resources from where they are no longer needed, or cannot now be spent, to the emerging pressure points across departmental budgets.

I would like to raise another issue. Several Departments submitted bids in this monitoring round — totalling more than £4·5 million — for interim funding of projects that will be seeking funding from the Peace II programme. To ensure that Departments had some latitude in judging what would and would not succeed under Peace II, the Executive had previously agreed to set aside £2 million from the Social Inclusion /Community Regeneration Executive programme fund to cover any costs that were met in good faith, but which in the end proved not to be recoverable from the Peace II programme.

However, Departments are now seeking resources over and above the £2 million currently available, which would be needed only if it transpires that the commitments they have made are not successful under Peace II. These bids are being carefully assessed to determine how much is likely to be required from our own Budget. However, the position is not clear at present, and the Executive have concluded that it would be prudent to make further provision to cover projects that have been funded by Departments in good faith, but which may not be funded under Peace II. Therefore we have set aside a further £2 million from the Social Inclusion/Community Regeneration Executive programme fund for that purpose. This will leave much less for new projects from that fund in 2002-03.

We will be able to review the position when the gap funding issue has been concluded and Peace II is fully operational. In agreeing this provision, I emphasise that Departments will receive allocations for gap funding only if they can show that the projects could reasonably have been expected to succeed under Peace II; this is not an open door for bids for general support to the voluntary sector.

I recognise that some projects will no longer receive funding. Those projects will have to seek financial support from other sources. Indeed, it was made clear under Peace I that projects should be one-off, stand-alone projects or that they should develop an appropriate exit strategy. Through the introduction of gap funding, the Executive have made every effort to smooth the transition to Peace II funding and provide a soft landing for projects that are not successful in receiving funding from Peace II. Future calls for funding will now have to be handled through the usual channels.

This monitoring round has provided some significant adjustments to expenditure patterns in this financial year. I stress that these are mainly routine adjustments, driven by revised estimates of requirements up, down and across a wide range of services. Members will ask why this round has continued the recent trend by yielding a large, though welcome, amount of room for manoeuvre. I expect the Assembly to question the effectiveness of our financial planning and estimating and to raise concerns about the level of resources being surrendered at a time when so many public services are facing real problems.

The Executive share this concern and have agreed that some analysis should be made to identify whether there are any underlying causes for this pattern of underspending. With the benefit of that analysis, we will consider how best to address those underlying causes as we set spending plans for the period 2003-04 to 2005-06 later this year.

We must seek to improve our planning and estimating. It would also be desirable, and generally welcome, for Departments to have firm, longer-term spending allocations, which would enable pressures to be more easily addressed through effective management and re-prioritisation of resources.

As a first step we need to ensure that our resources are allocated to the areas of greatest need, and we will be seeking to make further progress towards that goal in the forthcoming spending review. Our work on needs and effectiveness will be one element that will help to inform that process. The views of the Assembly and its Committees will also be an important influence on our thinking. However, we must be under no illusion: this will be an extremely challenging task, but one which we must address together if we are to fulfil our commitments and meet the expectations of the wider community.

In conclusion, the allocations I am announcing today on behalf of the Executive will provide real and immediate benefits to a wide range of our public services including health, education and transport. We have worked together to reach these decisions on the basis of a careful assessment of the most pressing priorities, and, in doing so, we have provided further evidence of our commitment to open, transparent and accountable Government.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Molloy):

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement to the Assembly on this the first of his monitoring rounds. The statement reflects the concerns of the Committee for Finance and Personnel about the extent of reallocations in each monitoring round, especially at this time of the year. Should priority areas such as health, education and transport not be receiving a larger proportion of the Budget, instead of so much going to some Departments that, subsequently, are not able to spend their allocations? If we are listening to the advice of Assembly and the Committees on priorities, the allocations should reflect that.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the analysis of the trend. Can he give us a clear commitment before the next Budget round that the process will be examined in detail so that we can see some of the benefits coming through?

Are all these allocations being monitored with regard to TSN moneys? There are question marks over some of the allocations and how the Departments allocate TSN moneys.

11.00 am

Dr Farren:

I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for his remarks. I assure him, as I attempted to do in my statement, that the underspends and surrenders that he referred to will receive the analysis that I promised. No matter how precise our planning may become, it is unlikely that every Budget bid that is determined in December will be met 12 months later, according to the exact terms under which the finance was allocated. There may always be overspends and underspends.

Underspends are welcome, because they make available finance, which can be reallocated to meet emerging or immediate pressures. I trust that Members appreciate that. Nonetheless, the scale of the surrenders, at face value, raises questions that I have committed the Department to address. Planning will be more precise as a result of the co-operation of the Committees — particularly the Committee for Finance and Personnel, whose advice we value in that regard. However, I doubt that we will ever reach 100% accuracy in planning.

All Departments are obliged to ensure that their expenditure conforms to the framework requirement to target the social need that they have identified.


Mr Leslie:

I welcome the Minister to his first monitoring round. I note from his remarks that, whereas he started with a surplus similar to that of the Durkan years, he intends to reduce it.

Further to his remarks about the need to examine our budgeting procedures to ensure that they are as stringent as possible, does the Minister agree that that will have a further implication for the Executive programme funds? When departmental budgets were first shaved to create the pool for the Executive programme funds, there were howls of anguish — particularly from the Benches to my right. However, the Departments have been able to implement their plans under the rearranged budgets. That implies that the Executive programme funds have fitted comfortably into the scheme of things, and that they have provided a useful extra area of initiative for the Executive. Will the Minister comment on that? Alternatively, is he concerned that, in practice, the Departments have dipped back into the Executive programme funds to balance the books when their budgets have run short?

Dr Farren:

As Members will appreciate, the Executive programme funds were established primarily to assist the development of new policies and programmes and to improve public services in accordance with the priorities that were agreed in the Programme for Government. Their aim is to help the Executive to break away from established patterns of spending and to develop local solutions to local problems that are cross-cutting, where possible. On the basis of that policy, which is echoed frequently inside and outside the Chamber, the Executive programme funds generally have been welcomed.

Last April, £146 million was allocated in the first monitoring round, which covered 62 projects. Several of the projects involved Departments working in partnership. In addition, £31 million was allocated for student support services. A further £39 million was announced in December. Several of those were cross-cutting proposals.

The Executive consider the programme funds to be an effective means of promoting cross-cutting work and supporting initiatives brought by a group of Ministers working together. The Executive have decided, at this early stage of their implementation, to carry out a short review of the existing arrangements in order to ensure that the funds are working to best effect in delivering the Executive’s commitments and priorities. The review is in progress. Department of Finance and Personnel officials are due to appear before the Committee for Finance and Personnel on 29 January 2002 to discuss the review.

Mrs Courtney:

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber on his first monitoring round. I acknowledge his efforts to ensure that those Departments that are most in need receive extra funding.

In his statement, the Minister indicated that the Department for Employment and Learning made a successful bid for £1 million to provide an advance grant to the Lisburn Institute of Further and Higher Education. Can the Minister outline the nature of that grant? Is he aware that the North West Institute of Further and Higher Education in Derry is facing financial pressures that threaten to disrupt its provision of community education services? Has a bid been made by the Department for Employment and Learning in respect of that institute?

Dr Farren:

By the end of the financial year a deficit of around £1·1 million will have been created as a result of the running costs of the Lisburn Institute of Further and Higher Education. The recovery plan designed to enable the institute to regain financial stability has been agreed with the Department for Employment and Learning. The grant will temporarily provide the resources that are needed to enable a plan to be implemented. The sum awarded will be recovered from the institute’s grant in instalments over the next eight years.

I am aware of difficulties at the North West Institute of Further and Higher Education, as is my Colleague, the Minister for Employment and Learning. Her Department has commissioned consultants to ascertain the reason for the deficit. They will report by the beginning of February. The Department for Employment and Learning will not submit a bid to the Department of Finance and Personnel unless it is supported by a full recovery plan from the institute. In the meantime the Department is providing the means with which the institute can address its immediate cash flow situation by advancing its monthly grant. I assure the Member that the situation at the North West Institute of Further and Higher Education is being monitored carefully and a recovery plan is anticipated.

Mr Close:

I welcome the Minister to his new position, and I welcome his presentation on the December monitoring round. In particular, I welcome the sweetening pill of the advance grant to the Lisburn Institute of Further and Higher Education. Does the Minister agree that the current monitoring round is a recognition of the Executive’s failure to make proper estimates and to get their sums correct?

We have been operating for several years. In spite of that, something is seriously wrong, given that there is so much underspending while Departments remain under pressure to respond to the people’s needs. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the health sector.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has been allocated £7·8 million in this monitoring round. If health is supposed to be our number one priority, why has animal health been allocated virtually the same amount of money? Moreover, the Department for Regional Development has been allocated around £14 million. Does the Minister agree that health is not an emerging pressure, but one that has existed for several years?

Budgeting, monitoring and estimating are being carried out in entirely the wrong way, because we are in the same position, year in, year out. Allocations that are made as a "quick fix", represent money badly spent. The Executive must get their sums and estimations correct. As we move towards resource accounting, the situation can only get worse unless something is done urgently to correct it.

Dr Farren:

I appreciate the Member’s barbs that go with his good wishes on my appointment as Minister.

Health was at the core of Mr Close’s points. I assure him that the bids made by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in this monitoring round have been met in full — [Interruption].

Mr O’Connor:

Hear, hear.

Dr Farren:

Until I looked around, I was unsure of how to receive that note of acclaim, but I accept it in the spirit in which it was expressed.

We have met the Minister’s bids. As I said, £8 million has been made available, in addition to the planned Budget allocations that my predecessor announced in December. Almost £16 million from the current monitoring round has been made available to health. Those moneys are designed to meet the pressures that are identified by that Department.

Seamus Close casts a keen eye over all budgeting announcements. I am sure that he is fully aware of the scale of additional investment that has been made in the health sector since devolution and that next year’s health allocation will be almost 10% higher than the current year’s allocation. We are aware of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s needs and are responding to them as they are identified.

Longer-term issues are being addressed as part of the Department’s strategic approach. We await the requirements that will arise as a result of that, and we will respond to them accordingly. I addressed Mr Close’s general point about the associated budgeting and planning in my response to the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel.

We are analysing the pattern of underspending. We must recognise that circumstances can give rise to unanticipated underspends. In the past year, for example, the foot-and-mouth crisis placed particular pressures in one direction. Certain programmes for which expenditure had been anticipated were either delayed or put back indefinitely as a result of the clampdown on agricultural activity that ensued from the outbreak of the disease.

11.15 am

Ms McWilliams:

I too welcome the Minister to his new portfolio. I was taken aback by the large sum of money that we now surrender under the technical term "easements". I cannot understand how matters related to non-recurrent funding have come to be classed as "bids". I also declare my disappointment that over £3 million has been allocated to fund animal tuberculosis compensation, given the scandal that was pointed out by the Northern Ireland Audit Office that, to date, £21 million has been handed out in compensation. There are many questions on what is happening here.

I have serious questions about the information presented today for the first time in the section "Bids Recommended". I am a member of two Assembly Committees, and I have not seen those bids until now. There may be an explanation for that. Under the heading "Centre" there is a recommended bid by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for Invest Northern Ireland and another by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for funding to provide medical equipment for trusts. That bid should have been scrutinised by the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. It should also have examined the £4·6 million bid for funding to meet hospital and community health pressures and the amount that it is planned to carry forward.

Much as I have tried, I see no explanation for those recommended bids. That is no way to run the Assembly. There may be some explanation, but Members saw those bids for the first time today, without having had any time to see the broader picture and understand the pressures involved.

I hope that some bids will be non-recurrent; for example, the bid for £3 million for the SPED scheme in respect of people who have been intimidated out of their homes. Let us hope that there will be no such bid in the next round.

I am concerned that the facility for Members’ scrutiny of those bids leaves much to be desired.

Dr Farren:

I thank the Member for her questions and comments. I did point out that at this time of year our timetable is tight, so all the scrutiny to which the Member suggests the Committees are entitled may not be possible. However, the Committees can always keep in touch with expenditure in their Departments. In that way they can make themselves aware of emerging pressures and underspends to enable them to forecast likely situations. The pressures communicated to us in mid-December emerged over time, not in the day or two before documents reached the Finance and Personnel Committee. The Executive Committees need to look carefully at how they address spending issues. They should seek from the Departments information in respect of anticipated underspends and emerging pressures throughout the year.

The timescale for December monitoring means that it is not possible to allow any more time. Perhaps we need to address that issue with the Committees to see if better use can be made of the time between the identification of the bids and the announcement of the decisions so that the information that the Member is seeking can be made more readily available. However, the period running up to the identification of bids and underspends must be looked at as well.

The allocation of £8 million to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety was announced and approved in the Assembly in December 2001 as part of the Budget proposals.

Ms McWilliams:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker:

I do not normally take points of order during questions on ministerial statements. However, I sensed from the Member’s question that there was a query about the order and procedure of the Assembly. The proper context in which to take up the matter may be in discussions with the Chairperson of the Committee and myself, rather than with the Minister of Finance and Personnel. It may be that some of the Member’s questions are about information from Departments to Committees, rather than from the Department of Finance and Personnel to Committees. If that was the point of order, and if the Member wishes to raise the question with me directly, I will be happy to consider it.

Ms McWilliams:

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also welcome the Minister’s first address on the monitoring rounds. He said that underspends are welcome. However, the lack of explanation as to why these underspends arise is unwelcome. Therefore, I am glad to hear that the Minister will examine the pattern of underspends and whether the forecasting systems are effective in determining how those occur.

The Minister’s former Department, the Department for Employment and Learning, announced a remarkable underspend of £51 million. Departmental officials told the Committee for Employment and Learning that they had reduced the underspend to £13 million. Aspects of that underspend left the Committee with many questions about issues such as New Deal and student grants.

It is concerning to read that the Department for Employment and Learning is declaring only £13 million of those easements. "Easement" is a euphemism for carelessness or poor cost-effectiveness. Does the Minister know where the missing £38 million has gone? It is also concerning that there is no explanation of how the easements were reduced to £13 million.


Dr Farren:

I do not recall any underspend on the scale that the Member quoted. In the September monitoring round, the Department surrendered £10·6 million, and £6 million was surrendered in December. We are working on the basis of that information, and I accept that those are the real figures.

It is important, when considering services that are demand-led, to appreciate that the prediction of the scale of demand from one year to the next — forecasting in December what the scale of demand will be next September or October — is not an exact science.

We do not know, for example, how many students will be accepted into higher education, so we cannot determine precisely the pressures on that budget. We cannot predict accurately the number of people who will avail of services such as New Deal; the context is set by the number of unemployed people. Recently, the situation has been generally positive, as the number of unemployed people has dropped considerably. There has, therefore, been less pressure on services included in the New Deal programme. However, the situation could change dramatically. To an extent, the situation is already changing; recent figures show a regrettable increase in unemployment. Pressures on the services provided by the New Deal programme are likely to increase, and we must bear that in mind. The Member did not take account of the particularities of the situation. He needs to look beyond the figures to find an explanation for the underspending.

I echo the Member’s welcome of the underspending. Underspend in one Department leaves money to I echo the Member’s welcome of the underspending. Underspend in one Department leaves money to meet pressures in other Departments. That is the object of exercises such as the monitoring round.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

Mr J Kelly:

The question was not answered. The figure of £51 million that I quoted came from the Minister’s old Department.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

If the Member wishes to pursue the matter, he may write to the Minister.

Dr Birnie:

I thank the Minister for his statement. This is his first monitoring statement, so I join with those who wish him well with his new responsibilities.

The Minister will not be surprised that I wish to ask him about the part of his statement that relates to his former Department. In particular, I wish to ask about the so-called advance grant of £1 million that is being given to the Lisburn Institute of Further and Higher Education, although that has been mentioned several times this morning. Is the Minister concerned about the perceived unfairness to other further education colleges that have managed to avoid running up such deficits? Is he satisfied that the Department for Employment and Learning’s financial monitoring mechanisms are now sufficiently robust to detect colleges and further education colleges that get into financial deficit at a sufficiently early stage — before that deficit reaches £1 million, for example?

I was pleased to note the Minister’s response to the previous question. Again, there is a considerable easement in the spending on job programmes, such as New Deal and Jobskills, in the Department for Employment and Learning. This is partly, although not entirely, due to favourable labour market conditions. If unemployment rates are increasing with the effect that it is regrettably necessary to increase such spending again, the Committee for Employment and Learning hopes that the Minister will look favourably on these needs.

Dr Farren:

I thank the Member for his questions. I must resist the temptation to answer as if I were still the Minister for Employment and Learning. I have to satisfy myself, as Minister of Finance and Personnel, that the financial requirements on the Department are robust and meet the criteria tests with regard to public expenditure. I am satisfied that that is the case. It is therefore not my responsibility to answer questions about other unnamed colleges for which the Department for Employment and Learning has responsibility.

11.30 am

In this case, particular requirements have led the Department for Employment and Learning to make a bid on behalf of the Lisburn Institute, which has experienced pressures. As Minister of Finance and Personnel, I make recommendations to the Executive, and the Executive have agreed to provide those funds. I believe that the repayment requirements are justified and are part of the package that has been worked out between the Department and Lisburn Institute.

Dr Birnie has raised issues that other Members have also raised. All programmes within the Department for Employment and Learning, including those associated with New Deal and Jobskills, are demand-led, and the Department responds to the existing demands. When demands recede during the year, money then becomes available which had not been anticipated when the bids for those programmes were first made. It is appropriate that we reallocate those funds in the manner in which the monitoring round requires that we should. We should not point the finger at Departments and say that their planning was not what it should have been. However, we are examining the underspending patterns across Departments to see what lessons can be learnt and what advice can be given on budgetary planning.

Dr Hendron:

I congratulate the Minister on his new portfolio. I wish to return to a point that Monica McWilliams made earlier. She referred to the description of a Department as "Centre" on page 3 of the statement annex under "Bids Recommended". There is no Department of the Centre. There are references to "Trust Medical Equipment" and so on, which probably should be dealt with under the heading of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

The Minister is aware of the massive pressures on the Health Service. Given that the reviews and consultations on acute hospital services, primary care, public health and community care have identified the need for restructuring and serious investment, can the Minister assure us that he, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the rest of the Executive will listen carefully to the requests of the Minister of Health, Bairbre de Brún?

Dr Farren:

I can give that commitment. The commitment that is being sought is one from myself. However, I cannot speak on behalf of the Executive with respect to their general approach to business. Nonetheless, from my experience in the Executive, I would say that careful attention is paid to pressures identified by all Ministers.

The concerns expressed by Members of the House, by the health professions and by members of the public are re-echoed in the Executive's deliberations on matters relating to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

We are acutely aware of the pressures. When particular pressures are identified, to which we can respond with the resources available, we do so. The manner in which we have responded to the bids that have been submitted in this monitoring round demonstrates that, as does the additional money over and above that contained in the draft Budget that was identified and made available by my predecessor. The £8 million to which I refer was announced by Mr Durkan in December. To that we are adding almost £7·8 million. Therefore, a total of almost £16 million from the present monitoring round is available for health, which clearly indicates our concerns.

We wish to hear the longer-term strategy plans that the Minister will bring to my Department in the near future. Those plans will be considered in the generally sympathetic way in which the Executive have considered requests from the same Department since I have been a member of the Executive.

Ms Ramsey:

Go raibh maith agat. I agree with the Minister's statement, which says, as a first step, that we need to ensure that resources are allocated to areas of greatest need. He also pointed out that the Executive are aware of the pressures facing the Health Service. Although I welcome any additional money, the £7·8 million mentioned is there only to meet costs that arise from service activity and junior doctors' contracts.

In his statement, the Minister pointed out that there is a real and immediate benefit to those in need of treatment and care, and he expects that many will ask why we are not doing more. That is my first question. Why are the Minister and the Executive not doing more to meet the pressures in the Health Service? Health is a priority in the Programme for Government and for the Executive. However, slightly less than 10% of the allocated money is going to the Health Service, and that money is non-recurrent. Although I agree with the Minister's previous answer, he did say that long-term planning is needed to tackle the Health Service's problems. However, non-recurrent money does not allow for long-term planning. Does the Minister agree that that shows a need for an increase in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety's overall baseline figure?

Dr Farren:

Members need to appreciate the nature of the monitoring exercise and the response that is made to the bids. I have made the point at least once - perhaps more than once - that we have responded 100% to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety's bids in this particular monitoring round. We have responded positively to the needs and pressures drawn to our attention and the funding that is required to address them. We could not have responded more positively - we responded 100%, which is as positively as we can respond to any request.

At the risk of repeating myself, the Executive have been sympathetic to health. To make the point as clear as figures possibly can, since devolution, which covers the period from 1999-2000 through to 2001-02, we have agreed additional allocations of nearly £290 million to the health budget. Next year, health spending will be some £224 million, which is almost 10% higher than the provision for the current year.

Those figures represent significant additions and demonstrate the importance that we attach to this particular area. However, we must recognise that additional resources represent only part of the solution. We must ensure that allocated expenditure is used to the greatest possible effect.

Members will be aware that we are carrying out a needs and effectiveness evaluation of health and social care in order to better understand what we are achieving with what we are spending. Given the attention that has been paid to health and health-related issues - and that will continue this afternoon - Members will recognise that there are no easy answers. At the end of the day, we have to live within the overall Budget, and the additional funding for health and social care means that we may allocate less money than is being sought for other areas of public expenditure - but we are doing so in recognition of the particular pressures and requirements that come from this fundamental area of public life.

Mr K Robinson:

I too welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities and congratulate him on the competent manner in which he presented his statement to the House.

How much of the allocation for the SPED scheme is targeted directly on the alleviation of distress in north Belfast? Does the statement represent the sum total of resources that are being targeted to that troubled area, or is there other money in the departmental budgets that is as yet unidentified? Does the Minister have a view on the likely amount of additional funding that may be required to address that fundamental problem?


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