Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 4 March 2002
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I wish to inform the House that I have received a requisition, signed by 30 Members, calling for an urgent meeting of the Assembly to debate and vote on a motion for exclusion from ministerial office of one of the parties in the Assembly. Thirty Members have signed the requisition. These procedures can be found in Standing Order 11(1).
I have considered the various aspects of the question and have decided to summon a meeting of the Assembly for the morning of Wednesday 6 March, at 10.30 am. I will discuss the details of how that will be conducted with the Business Committee in the usual way.
The First Minister (Mr Trimble):
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, I would like to enquire about the timing of this motion. It is remarkable that it should come in on the day when the front-page story in the ‘News Letter’ predicts a further act of decommissioning. It also comes at the beginning of a week that, co-incidentally, ends with the annual general meeting of my party. I want to know if any indication was given to you, Mr Speaker, as to the reason for the timing of the motion. Was anything said that would give one reason to suspect that it is a stunt and is not serious, taking into account the annual general meeting of the Ulster Unionist Party? If the people who tabled the motion were serious, they would not be sharing power with Sinn Féin. They would not be in Government with Sinn Féin. If they had any integrity — [Interruption].
I have given substantial thought to the question, because it does seem to me that it has a series of implications. The first question is the basis on which such a sitting can be called and such a motion debated.
First, the signatures of 30 Members are required. That is the requirement for a petition of concern in strand one, paragraph 5(d) of the agreement, which it describes as a "significant minority". In section 30(5) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, a notice for such a motion of exclusion is specifically authorised if "supported by at least 30 members". Under section 42(1) of the 1998 Act, a petition of concern must also be signed by 30 Members expressing their concern. In Standing Order 11(1) the provision is made that "the Speaker shall" — not may — "as soon as may be, summon the Assembly to meet" if notice is given by the First and Deputy First Ministers or "not less than 30 Members".
It seems to me that the level of 30 Members is, for more than one reason, identified in the agreement, the 1998 Act and Standing Orders as "a significant minority". Of course, the provisions are established as safeguards. They are described in the agreement as a list of safeguards for the protection of minorities — not of any one minority, but of any minority that amounts to at least 30 Members.
The second question is whether the Speaker has leeway to judge a matter on the basis of whether there is "urgent public importance". Those are the words used in Standing Orders. A point of order was raised on that question on 10 April 2001 by Mr Eddie McGrady, who put it to the Deputy Speaker, Jane Morrice, that the matter under consideration was not a matter of urgent public importance. The Deputy Speaker ruled that if 30 Members regarded it as a matter of urgent public importance, there was little alternative but to treat it as such, since 30 Members are regarded in all these circumstances as a significant minority.
I have given consideration to the Deputy Speaker’s ruling in this regard. I think that she is right. It seems to me that the alternatives are even more serious. They are to suggest either that one deals with some minorities differently from others — not a position, I believe, that the Chair can adopt — or that if the Speaker felt it possible to overrule the belief of 30 Members that a matter was of urgent public importance, then, since the same paragraph refers to the right of the First and Deputy First Ministers to call a sitting, it would potentially put the Speaker at odds with the First and Deputy First Ministers over whether a matter was of importance. I do not believe that that would be a proper thing to do. Indeed, I see that the Member does not believe that that would be a proper issue.
The First Minister:
I am disagreeing with you.
I would perhaps be less keen on that than the First Minister would be. However, it is a matter of substantial difficulty. If, of course, such a procedure were to be used repeatedly, it could potentially bring the Assembly into disarray. However, the purpose in the agreement was to ensure that if any minority of 30 Members felt that they were not content to proceed with the operations of the Assembly, they were in a position to frustrate it. That was the intention behind the inclusion of this procedure. It seems to me that it would be difficult on any legal, or other, grounds for the Speaker to rule that a matter was not of urgent public importance simply because the Speaker was uncertain about it, even though 30 Members took the view that it was.
However, I was struck by the fact that the particulars of the urgency are identified in the requisition. The resolution refers to Sinn Féin, but the requisition for the meeting refers clearly to urgency, since it identifies that it wishes the meeting to be held before 9 March — [Interruption]. It seems to me that those who requisitioned the meeting felt that the urgency was occasioned, in some fashion, by the significance of that date. I cannot judge otherwise.
If the Assembly were to come to the conclusion that any of its procedures were being used to frustrate its proper wishes, it would be open to the Assembly — through the Committee on Procedures or otherwise — to make changes to Standing Orders so as to protect itself against any perceived abuse. As long as those were not contrary to the Belfast Agreement or to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which set up the Assembly, there is no reason why they should not be passed by cross-community support. In those circumstances, it is possible that the authority of the Speaker might be more fully clarified on that particular issue. The Committee on Procedures is perfectly at liberty to do that. In the absence of such a specific clarification, I believe that I have no alternative but to proceed with the sitting in the way that I have described.
The First Minister:
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It is clear from what you have said that the people who have tabled the motion have identified that it is 9 March that is important to them. The Standing Orders refer to urgency. It is clear that the element of urgency has nothing to do with the substantive motion. It has nothing to do with Sinn Féin. The urgency is simply in regard to the annual general meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council. It is perfectly clear that this is a stunt. It is not meant seriously.
There is no urgency with regard to Sinn Féin, only with regard to the Ulster Unionist Council’s annual general meeting. I suggest that that is an abuse of procedure. I would have thought that it is an accepted principle that procedures cannot be used in that way for an ulterior purpose. Therefore, the decision to sit on Wednesday should be reconsidered. Indeed, it should be left to those who sit in the DUP corner to show that they really mean this by ceasing to share power with Sinn Féin and by ceasing to sit in the Assembly. If they had any guts, they would resign and walk out.
I find myself in something of a dilemma, because in other circumstances I find myself focusing on clarifying the motives and motivations of those with whom I work. In this circumstance, I must often caution myself against looking at those motives and motivations and stick to the Standing Orders, which it is my responsibility to maintain. I think that, within the substance of the Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, it is entirely possible for a minority of 30 Members to frustrate the activities of the Assembly. If there is a wish to guard against abuse — I do not necessarily rule what the First Minister has said "out of court" — it is a matter for Standing Orders.
It is my job to uphold Standing Orders. If the Assembly believes that a Standing Order should be changed in order to ensure that Members use Standing Orders differently, it is for the Assembly to make that change. It is my responsibility to fulfil the Standing Orders only as they are. As I have said already, if Standing Orders are to be changed, they must be changed only in the spirit of the Belfast Agreement and the word of the 1998 Act. Standing Orders cannot go against the 1998 Act. I have already made that clear.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Before the First Minister busts a blood vessel, Mr Speaker, can you confirm that, in tabling the motion, the parties that have signed it and brought it before the House have played by the rules that were established both by the House and by the UUP, which is protesting too much this morning?
Furthermore, Mr Speaker, given that you have made several indications about motivation this morning, can you indicate that — from the First Minister’s comments — his motivation in protesting so loudly is that he has not got the guts to oppose Sinn Féin’s continuing in the Government of Northern Ireland and that because he wants to stay in Government, he refuses to oppose Sinn Féin?
Order. First, I am sure that the First Minister will be appreciative of the Member’s obvious concern for his well-being. I suggest that there have been excessive medical references, perhaps because I am in the Chair today, to psychological well-being and motivations and, indeed, to blood vessels and guts. It might be best to stick to politics, rather than medicine.
As far as the Member’s point of order is concerned, I confirm — and I am sure that he will be much relieved — that what has been done is entirely in conformity with Standing Orders. Had it been otherwise, I would not have permitted it. I am content to clarify that.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Mr Paisley Jnr mentioned not having the guts to oppose Sinn Féin. My gut reaction is that this is an absolute stunt. [Interruption].
I want a ruling on one issue.
Mr P Robinson:
Where’s the letter about the police?
The letter about the police has been shown to the appropriate people, of whom Mr Peter Robinson is not one. Let us stick to the subject. [Interruption.]
First, 9 March has been stated to be a date of great urgency by the DUP and, of course, Mr Peter Weir, who always supports the DUP. Have you, Mr Speaker, decided why 9 March is of great urgency? Was any explanation given of why that date was selected by the DUP, or is having the debate prior to the annual meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council simply a stunt?
Secondly, I require a ruling because Committees of the House are meeting on Wednesday, as is the Northern Ireland Policing Board, on which many Members are represented. Are those meetings to be cancelled, or will they run concurrently with the Assembly sitting?
Far be it from me to suggest that 9 March and the meetings that I understand will be held on that date are matters of great moment and importance, requiring advertisement and so on, or otherwise. That is not a matter for me; nor is it for me to judge why the date was identified. It is identified in the requisition, and that, as far as I am concerned, is that.
On the point of order about whether or not other meetings should be cancelled so that a plenary meeting may proceed, the fact is that it is quite common — sometimes to my regret, I have to say — that even on stated plenary meeting days, Committees and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Policing Board are content to meet. I see no particular reason for requesting the cancellation of any meetings so that a plenary meeting may proceed. Of course, it is a matter for others if, knowing that there is to be a plenary meeting, they choose to rearrange their meetings. I would certainly not give any such direction from the Chair. If I may say in passing, it is a bit regrettable if, on stated plenary meeting dates, there are repeated meetings of a non-urgent kind, but that is wholly another matter.
Mr C Wilson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is interesting to see the tussle that has developed between the First Minister and the DUP and, indeed, Mr Trimble’s finger-pointing at the DUP and accusing it of being involved in institutions that are linked to, and compel them to take the Pledge of Office to work under, the terms of the Belfast Agreement. The Unionist electorate will be rather baffled as to why any Unionist in the Assembly sits on an Executive with Sinn Féin when he clearly has no mandate to do so.
Mr C Wilson:
And I mean any Unionist, whether from the DUP or the Ulster Unionist Party —
Mr C Wilson:
Both parties told the electorate that they would not participate in Government with Sinn Féin.
Order. I called the Member on a point of order. I am not clear that there was a point of order at all in what he said.
Mr P Robinson:
Would you like to answer him?
It is not a matter of answering him. If the Member has a point of order, I permit him to make it — but only if it is a point of order.
Mr C Wilson:
It was lest you had any doubt, Mr Speaker — you were questioning the reason for calling the special motion.
Mr C Wilson:
It was to say that, from my point of view, I have no qualms about telling you —
Mr C Wilson:
It was to point the finger at Mr Trimble —
Order. The Member will resume his seat.
I was not questioning motivation at all. I was making it clear that it was not my responsibility, or even appropriate for me, to proceed in that way.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure you will be pleased that at least the electorate in Strangford were not baffled on the issues at the last election. As one of those involved with the requisition, I want to make it clear that, as far as the Democratic Unionist Party is concerned, the decision was made with regard to the diaries of those who were going to the United States and to other places over Easter. It was recognised that to get the best attendance for the debate —
Mr P Robinson:
If they are junkets, it is principally your party that goes on them. I am pleased to hear that dealings with the President and others are regarded by the Ulster Unionists as junkets.
As far as my party is concerned, the date was chosen to maximise the possible attendance at the debate. However, this is typical of the First Minister, who thinks that all life revolves around him and the Ulster Unionist Party. He should have learnt by now that less of the electorate is concerned about what the Ulster Unionist Party wants.
I trust that the proper matters of order have been sufficiently aired and addressed for the House to know that I have given them the fullest consideration that I can. I feel that in the present circumstances I have no alternative but to allow things to proceed under the Standing Orders. If others wish to change the Standing Orders, or the House wishes to change them, that is a matter for the House, and I will seek to implement whatever Standing Orders are in place at any particular time.
Ms Monica McWilliams has begged leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22.
I beg leave to present a petition from residents of the Malone area of south Belfast. It refers to the proposed erection of telecommunications apparatus, consisting of internally mounted dual polar antennae, in an existing church tower. That will require external alterations to a listed building, with equipment and cabin to the rear of the McCracken Memorial Presbyterian Church, 161 Malone Road, Belfast. The petition has over 1,200 signatures from residents of the area who are strongly opposed to the development. Not only will the mobile phone mast destroy the character of the listed building, but conclusive evidence on the safety of the radiation emitted from such masts has yet to be produced. They are understandably concerned at the long-term effects on their community, and ask that you accept this petition.
Ms McWilliams moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.
I will forward the petition to the Minister of the Environment and a copy to the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Orders 10(2) and 10(6) be suspended for Monday 4 March 2002. — [Minister of Finance and Personnel.]
I have received notice from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that he wishes to make a statement on the 2002 Budget timetable.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Dr Farren): I would like to make a statement on behalf of the Executive, setting out our proposed timetable for the key planning and financial events between now and December, when the Budget for 2003-04 must be agreed.
This year the cycle will cover the period 2003-04 to 2005-06, as the Executive makes plans for the three- year period covered by the Treasury’s spending review. The Budget and the processes surrounding it are evolving.
In presenting last year’s Budget, the Executive endeavoured to build on and refine the processes that were put in place during the first Budget. I intend to continue that process in drawing up this year’s Budget.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr J Wilson] in the Chair)
I have carefully considered many of the comments and suggestions about the process, and, where possible, I have tried to take those into account in this year’s timetable. Last year, the Executive committed themselves to ensuring that they presented the draft Budget as soon as possible after the summer recess. That was intended to facilitate greater consultation on the draft Budget. The Executive found that additional consultation important in finalising the Budget, and we intend to work again towards presenting this year’s draft Budget as soon as possible after the summer recess.
This year is important in budgetary terms, because a UK spending review will take place. In July, the Chancellor will announce the financial envelope for the next three years for all Whitehall Departments and the three devolved Administrations, including Northern Ireland. Thus, we will know the total level of resources that Northern Ireland can expect to receive for the years 2003-04, 2004-05 and 2005-06. To avoid confusion, I intend to use the terms "spending review" or "SR 2002" to refer to the UK-wide exercise, and the term "Budget 2002" to refer to our own exercise.
At this stage, the Executive do not know what outcome to expect from SR 2002. The current signals from the Treasury are not encouraging. However, the Executive are determined to make the strongest possible case, and they must plan in a realistic but flexible manner.
In setting out the first two Budgets, the Executive concentrated primarily on the following financial year and included only broadly indicative figures for subsequent years. That does not secure a satisfactory planning position for public services, because a Department’s financial position is not confirmed until the finalisation of the relevant Budget in December. Many aspects of our key services, such as capital projects and the education system, do not run on a financial-year basis, and we must make the transition from year to year as smooth as possible.
This year, the Executive will seek to establish, in the circumstances, the firmest possible three-year planning position. Therefore, in drawing up this year’s Budget, we aim to set out our expenditure proposals for the next three years. That will help Departments to make more long-term plans, because they should have firm figures for 2003-04 and indicative allocations for 2004-05 and 2005-06. The Executive intend to revisit those allocations in the Budget exercises in 2003 and 2004. If the Assembly achieves a better strategic plan for the Programme for Government and the Budget this year, there should be no need to have such a fundamental review of the spending plans in 2003 or 2004 as is envisaged for this year.
The process of preparing the new Budget runs from now until December. In December, the Executive will seek to settle an agreed Budget in line with the revised Programme for Government that will form the basis of spending plans for all Departments and other public sector bodies.
I remind Members of the need to complete work on the spending allocations for the financial year 2002-03. The Budget Bill was passed last week. It covers the Vote on Account for 2002-03 and is intended to enable expenditure to proceed until the Main Estimates are agreed and the related Budget (No 2) Bill is passed.
We intend to present the Main Estimates and introduce the relevant Supply resolution in late May or early June.
This year’s Budget timetable will be very demanding. It must be managed carefully if Members’ and Committee’s expectations for consultation are to be met, and if we are to meet our section 75 obligations. The position is complicated by the fact that the Chancellor will not announce the outcome of the UK spending review until the third week of July. We will not know until then what resources are available to us for the next three years. Nevertheless, the Executive wish to begin now to examine the strategic inter- and intradepartmental issues and priorities that they will face.
The next few months will be very important for the Executive as regards assessing priorities and drawing up a strategic framework for use once the outcome of the spending review 2002 is known. We need to complete the budgetary process before Christmas. With that in mind, the approach that I am setting out today will ensure that the Assembly has as much time as possible to consider the Budget proposals contained in the draft Budget 2002, in the context set by the Programme for Government. That will ensure that the spending proposals can be approved by December, after an acceptable period of scrutiny. This step should be seen as the main authorisation of spending plans. It follows that we should provide the best possible procedures for that purpose.
The proposals set out in the indicative timetable allow for much earlier involvement of the Assembly Committees in the budgetary process than was possible last year. Today’s statement marks the start of that process, although Committees are free to scrutinise financial performance and budgetary issues at any time.
I draw Members’ attention to the third item from the bottom of page 13. The item refers to the first consideration of the draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget by the Executive, which should be done by 5 September 2002. That item is included incorrectly on that page. The entry can be found in its proper place at the top of page 15. Members may ignore the entry on page 13.
To set the process in motion, guidance is being issued which requires all Departments to submit a position report, providing a broad analysis of current performance in delivering the Executive’s priorities. Position reports will provide each Department with an opportunity to set out its overall purpose and strategy, identify its role in delivering the Executive’s priorities and set out its financial situations. The reports will also identify areas where Departments anticipate reduced requirements or expect to make savings which will allow for the redeployment of resources.
Clear links between the Programme for Government and public service agreements will be drawn out, and the focus will be on the assessment of output and outcomes. Equality and social need input will also be considered as central issues in the Budget cycle.
As before, the Executive will consult on the implications for equality and new TSN needs of the draft Budget in the autumn. However, to ensure that the draft Budget fulfils our determination to promote equality of opportunity and new TSN, those issues will need attention at every stage of the process in Departments and during the consideration of the issues by Committees.
The guidance states clearly that Committees should have a proper opportunity to scrutinise their Departments’ position reports before they are submitted to my Department and the Economic Policy Unit. That meets a concern expressed by Committees last year that they wished to be involved in the process at an earlier stage in the cycle than was possible last year.
In providing this opportunity for earlier engagement and scrutiny, I hope that Committees will view their Departments’ position in the widest possible context and consider the level of resources that are likely to be available. I also urge Committees not to lose sight of the full range of issues that all public services are faced with, or to become preoccupied with any bids for additional resources that may emerge. At this stage we must focus on determining what our strategic priorities should be. It is for that reason that we decided to produce a position report early in the financial planning cycle.
We must form a more strategic view of Departments’ overall spending. If we are to make a substantial difference to spending patterns, we must examine what is being secured for the large amounts of spending on mainstream public services. We are working on several means to help with this process — for example, the public service agreement targets set out in the Programme for Government provide a good basis for some inquiries. The needs and effectiveness evaluations will provide a more systematic analysis of the issues in six major sectors.
Those tools do not provide multiple-choice answers that we can simply mark with a tick or a cross. They can inform our judgements, but those judgements must be made first by the Executive, in their preparation of the draft Budget, and then by the Assembly. In doing so, Committees may wish to consider departmental plans and the public service agreement targets set out in the Programme for Government. Committees must also consider how priorities set out in the Programme for Government may be refined and developed in the light of experience in the last year.
It is important that Committees also consider the implications for equality and new targeting social need and that they should be informed by the scrutiny of other material available to them. In that way, we can ensure effective examination and identification of changing financial priorities at departmental level and at a wider strategic level.
To put that into context, it is worth remembering that we will not know the implications of the 2002 spending review until the Chancellor’s announcement in late July, although current signals from the Treasury suggest that this will be a tough spending review. We will make our case to the Treasury in the coming months, but we must be realistic about the possible outcome. That is why the Executive established indicative minima for Departments when preparing for this year’s Budget. By doing so, we were able to set aside an allocation of £125 million, to be known as the Executive spending review allocation. We will have to make decisions about this allocation, regardless of the outcome of this year’s spending review. Our decision to hold back the allocation represents a prudent approach to financial management, as well as being a clear signal of our determination to look for change in the way that spending is allocated. We must recognise that this allocation of £125 million, plus the consequences of any allocations made by the Chancellor in his April 2002 Budget, and any reduced requirements declared by Departments, could be the main resources available for allocation. I therefore emphasise the need for realism in our approach to the task ahead.
Of course, before then we will need to conclude our consideration of the Barnett mechanism. Over recent months we have been undertaking a detailed and, indeed, rigorous scrutiny of the Barnett formula, looking carefully to see whether it meets our needs sufficiently now and, more importantly, whether it will meet them in the future. We cannot accept a situation in which priority services provision here, such as health, education and transport, is clearly less favourable than in England, which appears to be the consequence of Barnett. I am sure that Members will accept that now is not the time to state publicly all that we have in mind for the negotiations that are about to begin, but I can assure the Assembly that we are determined to seek an appropriate and fair outcome to this year’s spending review and that the case will be pressed at the highest levels.
Challenging Barnett is not something we will undertake lightly, and it is not, as I have said before, a "no risk" option. We can be sure that any challenge will lead to strong pressure from the Treasury that we should pay our own way more fully, and I do not have to remind Members that this will mean looking hard at the rates and at the financing of water and sewerage services. This will apply especially if the Chancellor increases taxation to finance health spending.
In the months ahead we will also be assessing the outcome of the six needs and effectiveness evaluations before the summer, covering health and social care, education, training, housing, selective financial assistance and culture, arts and leisure, which cover some 75% of our total expenditure. We will also be considering a number of other strategic issues including the Burns Report, the Hayes and acute hospitals review, the regional transportation strategy, the task force on long-term unemployment, the interdepartmental work on research and development, proposals in relation to the Water Service and the rural visioning report.
These are all complex pieces of work, which will provide us with a good deal of information about what we are achieving with what we are spending and will serve to inform future expenditure decisions. However, we do not expect the evaluations to provide us with easy answers. They are more likely to identify areas where we will need to review our policies and what we are doing. Nevertheless, they will provide a valuable analysis of what we are achieving with current expenditure and valuable information that will inform future spending decisions.
Clearly, we all face an intensive period of work, which will culminate in the presentation of the Executive’s position report to the Assembly in late May. It is important that we conclude this work as soon as possible before the summer, so that the Executive’s conclusions about the key issues facing the Administration are understood and can be the subject of debate in the Assembly and between Departments and Assembly Committees.
It is likely that the publication of the position report in late May will coincide with Assembly business on the Main Estimates for 2002-03. I want to make it clear that these are two distinct processes, and I hope that the timing of the business can be managed in a way that helps to mark that distinction. In brief, we will need to debate and vote on the main motion seeking approval of the Main Estimates for 2002-03 and then consider the stages of the Budget (No 2) Bill.
The key point is that those relate to 2002-03. The Budget process that is set out in the timetable that I am announcing today begins the cycle for 2003-04.
The Committee for Finance and Personnel will have an important role to play throughout the next phase, and it may be able to assist by drawing together the key themes and conclusions of each Committee. I will welcome, therefore, the advice and assistance of that Committee throughout the process, especially at several key stages, and I will be discussing that in detail with it.
Once the position report has been published the Committees will have until August to consult on, and consider, the departmental proposals. Obviously, we want to achieve as much as possible before the recess so that the Executive will be properly informed during the summer, when it considers the revision of the Programme for Government and begins to construct a draft Budget. The Committee for Finance and Personnel will again play a key role in co-ordinating any views expressed during that period. I look forward to receiving any comments or conclusions before the end of August, when we will prepare the updated Programme for Government and the draft Budget.
Last year we used the period between the end of August and mid-September to develop and refine proposals for the Programme for Government and the draft Budget before introducing the drafts to the Assembly in late September. We propose to follow a similar process this autumn. The Executive found the debate on the draft Budget on foot of a motion from the Committee for Finance and Personnel to be a helpful opportunity to hear Members’ concerns. That debate will supplement the work of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, which, in parallel, will take evidence on the draft Budget from other Statutory Committees during the autumn.
Consultation on equality implications will take place in October or early November, when Committees will also consider the revised Programme for Government and the public service agreements (PSAs). I hope that the Committee for Finance and Personnel will be able to report to me its views on the draft Budget as early as possible in November. That would allow me to ensure that that Committee’s views will be taken into account in the drawing up of a paper on the revised Budget, for consideration by the Executive in mid-November. We are working towards making a Budget statement in early December, with an Assembly debate and vote to take place by 10 December.
In preparing our Budget 2002-03, we will also have to take account of the final stage of the implementation of resource budgeting in the 2002 Budget. That will involve several changes to the budgeting regime of Departments, including the movement of a significant element of non-cash costs — appreciation, cost of capital, management of assets and provisions — from the annually managed expenditure to the departmental expenditure limit. In addition, capital grants from central Government to the private sector will score as resource rather than capital expenditure — that will have a profound effect on the management of our resources. As a result of those changes, the Assembly will receive better-focused information about how resources are used to meet objectives and on whether taxpayers are receiving value for money. That will result in enhanced accountability to the Assembly.
I am aware, however, that the move to resource budgeting has been seen to complicate some of our financial processes. It will take time for us to become familiar with the new concepts and presentations of information and figures. I want to work with the Assembly to help it to get to grips with that change. My officials have already held two seminars on some aspects of that work, and it will hold more in the coming months. I urge Members to become as familiar as possible with the issues.
The preparation of the annual Budget is usually a complex and challenging exercise. This year will be especially difficult. We will be seeking to put a three- year budgetary framework in place, and we will need to take account of the needs and effectiveness evaluations and consider how best to address the issues they will raise. We will also be considering how to deal with the increasing difficulties associated with the Barnett formula. However, we must be realistic about the signals emerging from the Treasury, and we must prepare ourselves for a situation where we do not have sufficient resources to fund all the activities that we would wish to fund.
I ask for the Assembly’s and the Committees’ forbearance in this process. There will be limited time available at each stage during the first part of the year. All those stages are, in practice, preparations for the main statutory stage of Assembly involvement in the autumn. Hence, we do not need the final views of Committees in the constrained periods for input into the position reports from Departments in April and in response to the overall position report in the late spring and early summer. At both stages, Departments and the Executive will have to move on at, or close to, the stated times.
It may appear that the stages are rushed — but they are not the decision-making stages. If there were one point that I would emphasise most strongly, it would be the value and necessity of the Committees providing clear views on priorities, so that the Committee for Finance and Personnel can advise me on those by mid-August. That will mean that when the Executive address the issues of allocations within the departmental expenditure limit in early September, we can reflect on the views of the Assembly.
Even if that, in practice, means completing the work before the summer recess, clearly there is substantial time before then for it to happen. All other stages should serve, rather than obscure, that key point.
The main events associated with the preparation of the Programme for Government and the Budget 2002 include Departments preparing position reports setting out the main issues they will face in the three years from 2003-04 and the presentation of the Executive’s position report in late May. That will then be available to the Committee for Finance and Personnel, other departmental Committees and the wider community. I will seek the views of the Committee for Finance and Personnel by the end of August on its consultations with other Committees. The outcome of the six needs and effectiveness evaluations will be carefully considered in drawing up the Programme for Government and the draft Budget.
The Executive will develop and consider the Programme for Government and the draft Budget, which will seek to put in place a financial framework for the next three years, in early September. An updated version of the Programme for Government and the draft Budget will be introduced to the Assembly in late September. Following this the Committee for Finance and Personnel will take evidence from the Department of Finance and Personnel and other Statutory Committees on the draft Budget.
The Executive would again welcome a further debate on the Budget should the Committee for Finance and Personnel decide to introduce this. There will be consultation on the equality implications of the Programme for Government and the draft Budget. Concurrently, Committee consideration will be taking place on the revised Programme for Government and public service agreements, reporting back on those to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
Our aim is that the revised Budget will be announced to the Assembly in early December and debated and voted on a week thereafter. I trust that Members will find this somewhat lengthy explanation of the intended procedures and timetable helpful in preparing for the work of the coming months.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Molloy):
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the new Deputy Speaker to the Chair. I thank the Minister for his detailed statement on the 2002 Budget at this early stage of the year. The Committee for Finance and Personnel advised the Department that the Budget cycle and the timetable employed last year was an improvement on previous years, but that small improvements could be made, and I welcome that these have been taken on board and have been pointed out in the statement.
Will the Minister confirm what assistance Committees will be receiving when deliberating on the departmental position reports? Will they receive the detailed guidance that Departments receive — a copy of the commissioning letter for explanation? How does the Minister foresee Committees gaining a full knowledge of their role in the process considering that the Budget is covering a three- year expenditure plan? Does he agree that information seminars could benefit Committees involved in the Budget process? Would his officials be willing to participate and guide Committee members through their role? The Minister has mentioned seminars. Seminars on the spending review and the Budget 2002 would be helpful.
Is the Minister satisfied that withholding the £125 million allocation referred to in the Executive spending review allocation will not prejudice his negotiating position with the Treasury in the run-up to the 2002 spending review? Is there any danger that the Treasury will penalise us for not having allocated that money, and in those circumstances would it not have been better to have allocated the money to priority areas such as health, education and infrastructure?
I thank the Chairperson for his comments and questions. I assure him, and Members, that my statement places significant importance on the contributions that Committees can make to the process.
In several statements and comments I have been urging Committees to involve themselves now in the planning process through their interrogation of the Departments. Detailed guidance concerning position reports will be issued later this week. As I have already said, officials will be available to provide information and guidance to Members on resource accounting and budgeting in the most appropriate format, whether it be at Committees, or in some other format suggested, on all issues related to new approaches to budgeting. We could link the spending review process with that.
The £125 million, described as the Executive's allocation, is related to our key priorities - health, education and transport. The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel has been pointing to fears about how that might be viewed by the Treasury, but I do not have any such fears. I said in my statement that it was a prudent move on the Executive's part to acquire authority for the £125 million so that we could signal to ourselves and in general terms the priority we attach to these three key areas of spending.
I wish you well in your new post, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The Minister's detailed statement was a very useful introduction to what will be a critical spending review. I hope that there will not be too much blood spilt on the carpet as the various Departments argue over the size of their allocations.
The Minister mentioned various tools that can be used to design the outcome. In particular, reference is made to the needs and effectiveness evaluations. As I understand them, these monitor the level of per capita spending in policy areas here relative to Great Britain and the effectiveness of outputs gained from that spending. Can the Minister tell the House when the outcomes of those six needs and effectiveness evaluations will be available to the Committees? Those evaluations have a strategic role in informing how the money should be divided up between and within Departments.
The Minister referred to the Economic Policy Unit (EPU). Can he expand on the role of the EPU as regards his Department in this Budget cycle?
Six needs and effectiveness evaluations are currently under way, and each is scheduled to produce a final report by May 2002. I said earlier that the studies are particularly complex, especially with regard to the attempt to measure effectiveness in a manner that will enable us to make useful comparisons. It is much easier to identify our needs and then to establish the levels of available expenditure in comparison with those available to others. However, the measurement of effectiveness is a much more complex exercise.
Although I have said that a final report should be available by May, Committee members will have the opportunity to interrogate the Departments on their work with regard to needs and effectiveness measurement.
The role of the EPU, which is part of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, is one of close collaboration with officials from my Department, particularly in respect of overall strategic matters and most notably reflected in the work that produced the Programme for Government and its subsequent revisions.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, and wish you well in your endeavours.
The Minister outlined a plan for financial growth until December 2002, which is welcome. What flexibility exists in the Budget timetable?