northern ireland assembly
Tuesday 29 January 2008
Executive Committee Business:
Private Notice Question:
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Seaport Investments Ltd: Planning Application
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment, Mrs Arlene Foster, that she wishes to make a statement on the decision that she has taken on a major planning application by Seaport Investments Ltd for a visitor and study centre on land that is adjacent to the Giant’s Causeway world heritage site.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I am making this statement on the outcome of my consideration of the planning application by Seaport Investments Ltd to construct a new visitor and study centre at the Giant’s Causeway world heritage site.
To say that there has been considerable interest in, and comment on, the application in recent months is an understatement. Much of that interest has been wholly irrelevant to my consideration of the planning merits of the application. For that reason, it is important to set out the materially relevant facts of that period, which led me to the conclusion that I am announcing today.
In a public statement on 10 September 2007, I said:
“I have recently received a report from the Planning Service on a planning application by Seaport Investments Ltd for a new Visitor and Study Centre at the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site. I have given this report my fullest consideration and have also taken the opportunity to visit the site.
Having done so, I have concluded that there is considerable merit in what is proposed and I am of a mind to approve it.”
I said that I was “of a mind” to approve the application, not “minded” to do so.
Although Seaport Investments Ltd submitted an outline rather than a full proposal, given the speculation and comment in the media — and elsewhere —during the summer about visitor facilities at the Giant’s Causeway, I felt that it was important to make my view public. The proposal attempted to minimise the visual intrusiveness of what was planned; it had an imaginative design; it provided extensive facilities; and it attempted to resolve access issues by devising new road arrangements.
However, I also stated clearly that I had concerns about some aspects of the proposal. I quote again from my statement of 10 September:
“I have asked my officials to engage with the developer and key local stakeholders on some aspects of the proposal so that I can make a formal decision on it at the earliest opportunity.”
The three key local stakeholders were the developer, the National Trust and Moyle District Council. I, therefore, made it equally clear that no decision had been made on the application and, indeed, that a decision would not be made until I had received a further report from my officials. Regrettably, that point was missed by a lot of commentators and, indeed, by Members of the House.
The aspects of the proposal to be further considered were its impact on the world heritage site; its ability to integrate into the landscape; its relationship to other developments in the area; and its relationship to the existing visitors’ centre.
My officials’ engagement with the key stakeholders has been completed, and I have received their report on the outcome and their reassessment of the application in light of that.
Discussions with the stakeholders revealed a significant amount of common ground. All three valued the world heritage site status; all three agreed on the value of the landscape and the need to minimise development; and all three considered that there should be only one visitor facility at the Giant’s Causeway, that it should be world class and that it should be provided as soon as possible.
However, there was no consensus on the way in which those agreed goals might be achieved. Indeed, the possible solutions suggested in relation to the proposal were mutually exclusive and there was no evidence from my officials’ discussions with the stakeholders that any of them would be acceptable or that agreement was a realistic possibility.
Against that background, I have reconsidered the Planning Service’s report and recommendation on the proposal, which I received in June last year, together with the further report on engagement with the applicant, the National Trust and Moyle District Council, and the Planning Service’s subsequent reassessment.
Although I still see considerable merit in the proposal, I consider that that does not outweigh the planning concerns that I continue to have about it and which clearly are not capable of being addressed to my satisfaction. I am convinced that the proposal, as it stands, would have an adverse impact on the world heritage site, as I believe that it could adversely affect the character of the area. There are serious doubts that the proposed development would adequately integrate into the landscape, and it would add to the spread of development at this sensitive location. I have, therefore, concluded on balance and on further reflection that the application should be refused.
In reaching that conclusion, I have also considered the need for a local public inquiry. However, I am satisfied that all representations on the proposal have been properly considered and that all other materially relevant planning considerations have been taken into account. I, therefore, feel that there are no other issues that would merit or require further examination or inquiry.
In light of that, I have decided that a notice of opinion to refuse the application should be issued to the applicant, and I have instructed my officials to proceed on that basis.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for bringing the matter before the House today. As Members will be aware, the Committee for the Environment has been seeking extensive detail on the planning application for a considerable time. That work has culminated in the Committee’s recent decision to apply for full openness and disclosure under section 44 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I am glad that that course of action may have acted as a catalyst for bringing the matter to the House today.
Will the Minister state what opinions and views were given both in her Department and to her Department that to proceed with the planning application could put the Giant’s Causeway’s status as a world heritage site in jeopardy? I note that she referred to a lot of commentators and Members of the House missing the point that no decision had been made. Did that apply equally to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who clearly was interpreting her as saying that she was minded to approve the planning application?
In relation to the application for outline planning permission at the site, will the Minister clarify whether her officials have engaged in any discussions with a developer or developers about a further proposal or amended proposal on the site at the Giant’s Causeway?
Finally, is the culmination of events today a case of saying, “Junior, this is another fine mess you’ve got me into”? Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs Foster: I am disappointed that the Committee Chairperson should make such a statement when he knows full well that the decision has been made on planning grounds alone. On 10 September 2007, I said that my initial decision was that I was “of a mind to approve” the application. I stated clearly that it was not a formal decision but an opinion and that my Department would enter into a process to seek the views of the other stakeholders about the difficulties. The Chairperson knows that when I attended the Environment Committee meeting on 20 September 2007 to discuss the matter, I set out the four issues that I referred to in my statement today. It should come as no surprise to him that the world heritage site is one of those issues.
During the time that the process was continuing between Planning Service and the stakeholders, I took the opportunity to visit the jurassic coast in the south of England, another world heritage site of natural distinction, to see what was being done there to protect the world heritage status. I found that visit very helpful in coming to the decision that I announced today.
The Chairperson asked about the existence of an alternative proposal on the horizon and whether there have been any discussions about that. I have had no discussions about an alternative proposal. I considered the existing application on its own merits, as I am legally bound to do. I reached my decision based on a careful assessment of the views of the Planning Service, of the consultees and the representations received from right across Northern Ireland. It should come as no surprise to the Chairperson that my decision was based solely on the planning application that was in front of me. I have always been very careful and very straight about the issue.
With regard to the responsibilities of other Ministers, I am sure that the Committee Chairperson will have an opportunity to ask them about their position on visitor centre facilities. My concern is the planning issue. It has always been a planning issue, and that will continue to be the case.
Mr Speaker: Although I have allowed the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment some latitude in his questions to the Minister, I have to say to other Members that I expect them to ask specific question on the statement and not to go all around the world. I warn the House about that matter.
Mr Weir: Mr Speaker, I shall try to keep my question rooted in the north coast.
I commend the Minister on her statement. She has expressed a considered opinion and not a knee-jerk reaction, as has sometimes been the case in the House, and taken a decision based firmly and clearly on planning grounds. In light of today’s decision and a commitment to release papers once that decision had been taken, will the Minister say whether she regards the decision of the Environment Committee, taken a mere week and a half ago, against clear-cut legal advice, to seek a section 44 application, to be — and to put it at its most generous — premature?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his comments. I have always made it clear that everything would be released once the decision had been taken. That decision has been taken as of today. Therefore, all documents will be made available to the Environment Committee and to anybody else who wishes to view them. I expect a long queue outside Millennium House over the next few days.
With regard to the proposed action of the Environment Committee, I understand that its legal advice was that such action was premature. My legal advice said that it was premature. I was disappointed, to say the least, that the Committee decided to go down a political route to try to get those papers, when I knew fine well that that was not going to be the case.
It was premature, because a decision is necessary to get papers of that kind, and no decision had been made — until today. I reiterate: that decision has been made and those papers will be made available.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I echo other Members who have spoken in welcoming the Minister’s statement. It goes without saying that much of what has happened in the past four months has damaged public confidence in the Planning Service. Today’s decision will help to ensure protection of the Giant’s Causeway’s world heritage status. It is a good decision for the Causeway, and in the eyes of the local community, and sends a clear message that relationships between Assembly Members and developers cannot be used to override the Planning Service’s integrity, independence and transparency. I, therefore, welcome the Minister’s decision, and move on to my question.
The Minister said that she will make available all the documents requested by the Committee for the Environment. Will she make those available to the Assembly today? Can she confirm that the management board of the Planning Service, early in 2007, recommended that the application be refused?
Mrs Foster: I have already said that the papers will be made available; however, administrative issues must be sorted out. The Member knows well that the file was brought to the Committee for the Environment to allow members to inspect it. I am happy to offer that facility again; I am sure that my officials will bring the file again, should the Committee want it.
I do not accept that people have no confidence in the Planning Service. Today’s decision is an indication of the Planning Service working well with key local stakeholders, and the Member had comments to make when that process was ongoing. That process, however, has borne fruit, in the elements that I mentioned — for example, recognition of the value of the world heritage status is very important to those who live in that area, and I am sure that the Member will acknowledge that.
The Member commented on the advice given to me by Planning Service officials on receiving the report in June 2007. As he well knows, I made no decision until today; therefore, I did not go against advice from Planning Service officials. I considered the advice then, and again, having reflected on the process that I began, and I came to my decision today. When the Member sees the report from the Planning Service, he will know what was said to me, and he may well see the direction that the process was taking.
Mr McFarland: I welcome the Minister’s statement. It is good that common sense has, eventually, prevailed. The issue began in 2002 and, since then, Ian Paisley Jnr has lobbied extensively — Prime Ministers, Presidents, or whatever — but we know, because both Ministers —
Some Members: Ask the question.
Mr McFarland: Mr Speaker, I need to sort of lead into it —
Mr Speaker: Order. I have always allowed Members some latitude in getting to their questions. However, we do not want statements further to the Minister’s statement. We expect questions on that statement.
Mr McFarland: Mr Speaker, I agree. However, there must be a context to a question, otherwise no one can understand why it is asked.
A Member: The statement is the context.
Mr McFarland: Right, I shall ask my question. What was the unseen factor that allowed the Minister to make her decision in September 2007, against the advice of the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) and the expectation of her Department, as indicated in a memo? What factor has no one else seen that allowed her to be minded to give that decision in September?
Mrs Foster: There is a couple of issues there, and I am sorry that the Member did not hear the statement. Perhaps he has difficulty with hearing: I am not sure.
I said that a decision was not taken in September — and I repeat, was not taken in September. Moreover, I said that I was “of a mind”; I did not say that I was “minded”. Frankly, one gets rather fed up of being wrongly quoted by other Assembly Members. Really, they must see —
A Member: Deliberately.
Mrs Foster: Deliberately: that is absolutely correct.
In September, I said that the proposal had considerable merit, and I still believe that. I want to outline that considerable merit, although I have said it in the statement. Clearly, again, Members were not listening to the statement, although they have it in front of them.
Although the proposal was at outline stage, it was clear to me that attempts had been made to minimise the visual intrusiveness of the proposed centre by grassing over roofs and exposed surfaces and by locating part of the car park underground. It had a very imaginative design, as I am sure those who have looked at it will agree. It provided extensive facilities for visitors to the Giant’s Causeway, with an auditorium, cafe and library, and attempted to resolve access issues with new road arrangements that were to be put in place as a result of the development.
There are no hidden factors in this statement today. I said what I said in September because I thought that the proposal had merit. I asked people to go away and look at it and to engage with local stakeholders to see whether the four other issues that I outlined to the Environment Committee could be dealt with. Unfortunately, they could not be dealt with, and, therefore, we are in the position where we have had this decision today.
Mr Ford: I am sure that the Minister will be pleased to know that I, too, welcome her statement today, even if it is somewhat belated.
However, is it not the case that her announcement of 10 September totally failed to take account of the concerns of UNESCO, the seven serious grounds for refusal that were laid out by the Environment and Heritage Service and the draft northern area plan — a material consideration at that time? What has changed between then and now that has meant that she has finally announced the right decision, having said that she was of a mind to take the wrong decision? In particular, does this not illustrate that there is a serious environmental protection issue in the way in which the Planning Service deals with key issues such as the Giant’s Causeway? This was not simply a planning application; it was a matter of environmental protection policy that needed to be fully discussed.
Mrs Foster: I think that this has been the most discussed planning application in the history of time, so that last point is completely out of order.
In relation to my decision’s being “belated”, I announced on 10 September that I was “of a mind”. A process then took place. That process was completed at the end of November. The Planning Service then reflected and sent me a report in, I think, the middle of January. I then came to the decision that I have announced today. I do not think that I could have done it any more quickly and, frankly, I would not have wanted to, because this is a very important application.
Mr Ford: I did not ask about speed.
Mrs Foster: He did ask about speed; I think that the Hansard report will show that he said “belated”.
Obviously UNESCO, EHS and the draft northern area plan are all issues that I have considered, both in June, when I received the initial report, and since receiving the final report from Planning Service today. I have taken them all on board, and they are reflected in my decision.
As for Mr Ford’s comments about the need for more independence, he is very creative in his arguments for an environmental protection agency (EPA), but even Members of this House will think that it is a bit tenuous to be arguing for an EPA on a decision —
Mr Ford: I did not mention it.
Mrs Foster: You did mention independence. Again, Mr Speaker, the Hansard report will show that. I listen to people who make comments, unlike some Members of this House who do not.
Mr Ford: Nobody is saying that.
Mrs Foster: I am saying that the EHS has made points to me. Those will be made available so that people can see what they are. The Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, which is my statutory advisory body, made two reports to me on those issues. That independent statutory advisory committee has also advised me on this matter.
Mr Ross: Although some Members will attempt to make cheap political points, I am particularly disappointed that the Chairperson of the Environment Committee, speaking in that capacity, has tried to do so. It is important to note that since the Minister’s statement in September, there has been much discussion about the Giant’s Causeway site, which has been slightly rich —
Some Members: Question.
Mr Speaker: Order, order. Minister?
Mr Ross: I have not actually asked the question yet.
Mr Speaker: Again, there would be less trouble if Members would just come to their questions.
Mr Ross: As I was saying, there has been lots of discussion about the site, despite the fact that there had not been for many years before. That is a positive development. We have heard many proposals, even if there is no substance there.
Some Members: Question.
Mr Ross: With that in mind, Mr Speaker, have the proposals that have been mooted in the past weeks and months had any bearing on the decision that the Minister has announced today?
Mrs Foster: I am sorry to say that I did not hear the question. [Laughter.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr Ross: We have engaged in a great deal of discussion about the matter over the past weeks and months, which did not happen previously, and we have heard that other people have submitted proposals, even if there is little substance to them. Given that, have those proposals affected in any way the decision that the Minister has announced today?
Mrs Foster: Absolutely not. Since the beginning of the process, I have stated that the decision on this application must be made on its own merits. After 10 September, there were some rumblings about other proposals being submitted, but I have received no other formal applications. Had I received any such applications from other developers, they would not have had a bearing on this application. That is because each must be judged on its own merits.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I was “of a mind” to thank the Minister for her statement, but now I have decided that I will thank her.[Laughter.]
Unlike other Members, I will ask my question quickly. The planning aspect of the issue is important for tourism. Given that we need a resolution to this for the benefit of tourists who will come to the North, will the Minister work closely on the matter with her colleague the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment? We must ensure that we proceed carefully and work closely with the other stakeholders, including Moyle District Council and the National Trust.
Mrs Foster: I am only too happy to work on this matter with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who I see has just arrived in the Chamber. In the near future, a planning policy statement (PPS) on tourism will be published. I know that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is looking forward to the publication of that PPS so that we can discuss how the relevant tourism issues pertain to planning.
A great deal was made of the fact that before I made my “of a mind” decision on 10 September, I had actually had the temerity to speak to my Executive colleague about the planning application that we are discussing. That is called joined-up Government; I will continue to be involved in that process, and I will continue to talk to my colleagues about the issues that are relevant to them. On matters that are solely within the remit of my Department, such as planning matters, I will seek my own guidance and that of the Planning Service.
Mr I McCrea: Again, unlike other Members, I will not attempt to make any cheap political points.[Interruption.]
Having said that, I will ask my question directly. We know that concerns have been expressed about this application, so will the Minister tell the House whether she will take that into account when considering similar applications that relate to the location in question?
Mrs Foster: As I have said already, each application that is submitted for a development in any location, including the Giant’s Causeway area, is treated on its own merits. The Giant’s Causeway is a sensitive location in that it is our only world heritage site — although I hope that that will change and that we will have more. I know that certain areas in Northern Ireland are seeking world heritage site designation.
Therefore, any other application that I receive for proposed developments at the Giant’s Causeway must fit the criteria that I have talked about today. Those include, as Mr Ford said, the draft northern area plan, UNESCO’s check list for world heritage site designation, and, obviously, any concerns that EHS has about that environmentally sensitive area will be related to me.
Mr Armstrong: Despite Ian Paisley Jnr’s having lobbied everyone else in the universe on the application for a development at the Giant’s Causeway, will the Minister confirm that not a word passed between her and Mr Paisley Jnr on the matter before September? Does the Minister agree that, had she made a decision on the matter four months ago, she would have spared her party a great deal of embarrassment?
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mrs Foster: I thought that I had made it clear that this issue was not about party-political point-scoring, nor was it about anything other than the planning application that was submitted to me — the only application that was submitted to me in connection with the world heritage site.
As I said on 10 September 2007, I was concerned that since 2000, there have been no visitors’ centre facilities of a world-class standard at the Giant’s Causeway. I attempted to deal with the issues connected to the planning application that had been submitted to me. On reflection, and having received the Planning Service’s report, I have had to turn down that proposal. That means that, at present, no applications have been submitted in relation to the world heritage site at the Giant’s Causeway. I hope that that will change soon.
Mr O’Loan: Like others, I welcome this decision and the Minister’s statement. Three DUP Ministers have dug deep holes for themselves at the Giant’s Causeway; Mrs Foster has, very wisely, stopped digging; the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment can certainly get out of the hole that he created; however, I am less confident about the position of the third Minister.
Will Mrs Foster now agree that her “minded” decision of 10 September 2007 was fundamentally wrong for two reasons: first, it depended on getting the agreement of Moyle District Council and the National Trust, which had not even been tested, never mind obtained; secondly, she says herself in her reasons for refusal that the proposal:
“could adversely affect the character of the area”
“There are serious doubts that the proposed development would adequately integrate into the landscape and it would add to the spread of development at this sensitive location.”
Will the Minister agree with me that all that information was available before 10 September 2007 and was provided to her by her departmental officials?
Bearing in mind that there is an offer from the National Trust, with the full co-operation of Moyle District Council, to adopt the public-sector proposal —
A Member: It is about time.
Mr O’Loan: It is a very welcome development. Will the Minister give her full support to that project, and will she facilitate, fully and rapidly, a planning application for it? Will she give full support in the Executive to the development of that proposal to ensure that a visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway is built and opened in the lifetime of this Assembly?
Mrs Foster: I hope that the Member is not suggesting that I consider an application other than on strict planning grounds. That is not what I am going to do. [Interruption.]
A Member: Favouritism.
Mrs Foster: If a formal application is submitted, I will consider it in the same way and on the same grounds as I would any other. There will be no favouritism for any application.
The Member said that I should not have embarked on the process that the Planning Service embarked on in September 2007 because it had not been tested. However, the point was to test the grounds for agreement. As I said in my statement, agreement was reached on matters relating to the world heritage status of the site and on other issues. The Member claims that the information was available to me at that time, and he is right. A great deal of information was available to me at that time, but I wanted to establish whether there was any leeway on the part of the landowners — the National Trust and Moyle District Council — and whether there was a willingness to develop what the Member so rightly wants to see at the Giant’s Causeway: a world-class visitors’ centre for everyone who visits it.
The Giant’s Causeway is our top tourist attraction, yet it does not have a world-class visitors’ centre. That should concern all of us. It was incumbent on me to find a way through the problem. No other applications have been received to date.
I hope that an application will very soon be lodged that is of a quality that can have the support of the Planning Service and everyone in the House so that we can move forward with this matter.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I want to score some political points this morning. I commend the work of my colleague Daithí McKay. He was referred to in a Committee meeting as a one-trick pony, but he has romped home on this matter; if I were a betting man, I would be in pocket.
I welcome the statement from the Minister. After months of speculation, a decision has finally been made that is based on planning policy, rather than on any outside influence. In the Programme for Government, the Minister —
Some Members: Where is the question?
Mr Boylan: I am coming to the question now. Mr Speaker, you showed some latitude to other Members.
It appears from the Programme for Government that there will be an overhaul of the Planning Service. Can the Minister assure the House that proper measures will be put in place to ensure that, in the interests of the public, applications will be processed and assessed in an open and transparent manner? Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs Foster: There is a little thing called freedom of information. It will come as no surprise to hear that my Department receives more freedom of information requests than any other, the reason being that it has responsibility for the planning system and the Planning Service. People have the right to ask questions about planning applications — and rightly so — and the public and Members have readily availed themselves of that process. I do not see how much more transparent the Planning Service can be.
It is interesting that the Member should mention racehorses, because I placed a notional bet with myself this morning that questions from Daithí McKay — [Interruption.]
It was a notional bet — one is allowed to place notional bets. [Laughter.]
A Member: You were minded to place a bet.
Mrs Foster: Obviously some Members have not yet woken up and did not hear what I said this morning. One can take a horse to water, but one cannot make it drink.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Storey: What about mules?
Mrs Foster: I have no clue whether one can take a mule to water —
A Member: What about an ass?
Mrs Foster: I will not go there. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order, Members. Order.
Mrs Foster: The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee knows fine well that this application was made on planning grounds, and on planning grounds alone. He will have his chance in Committee, if he so wishes, to look at the file. The Member may wish me to appear before the Committee, and he knows only too well that any time the Committee asks me to appear before it, I am there.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Storey: Like other Members, I thank the Minister for her statement. I assure her that, unlike another Minister in the Executive, she will not be abandoned after she has made a decision and left to flounder on her own. She will not be left on her own at the Giant’s Causeway, for she will have the support of her colleagues, and we will not behave like the disgraceful party sitting opposite us has behaved.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Storey: I also thank the Minister —
Mr Speaker: Can the Member come to his question?
Mr Storey: I must also point out that this morning’s statement was made by a DUP Minister and that it was not made at the behest of a Sinn Feín Member, as was suggested earlier.
In light of the Minister’s remarks about stakeholders and others who have been involved in the process to date, can she tell us what discussions there have been with the National Trust and Moyle District Council on any other proposals for the Causeway area?
Mrs Foster: As I understand it, there have been some discussions with planning officials. I have not had any direct discussions with either the National Trust or Moyle District Council. My officials had some preliminary discussions about the alternative proposal before Christmas, and they still await further contact from the National Trust in taking this issue forward.
However, the Member will know that those discussions are completely separate from what has been discussed today, and he will appreciate why I say that. The private-sector application that I decided on today stood alone on its own merits. As I say, my decision today has nothing to do with any other applications that may be forthcoming — and I hope that other applications will be forthcoming.
Mr T Clarke: In her statement, the Minister said that she asked her officials to initiate a process of engagement between the major stakeholders, with a view to arriving at an agreed solution that would allow her to approve an application. Given that only one application was made, why did it not succeed?
Mrs Foster: The Member is aware that I believed that the application before me had considerable merit, and I have set out those reasons in my statement today. However, on 10 September 2007, I said that there were some difficulties, and I described them in more detail when I appeared before the Committee for the Environment on 20 September 2007.
Those difficulties related to world heritage site status, the requirement to minimise development in a sensitive landscape, and the provision of a new visitors’ centre. Given that a visitors’ centre already exists, the question of whether a new one was needed was at the forefront of my mind at the time. Any new application to build a visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway must address those issues as well as any others that it may encounter.
Mr K Robinson: I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I note the refusal contained therein. However, the Northern Ireland public must be wondering what is next for its only world heritage site. Does the Minister agree that the entire saga is another sorry reflection of the state of the Planning Service? To help Members to gain a greater understanding of what has happened, will the Minister share the nature of her discussions with the Minister for Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism, Margaret Hodge, on the Giant’s Causeway, which took place in Downing Street in mid-December?
Mrs Foster: Yes, I am happy to make the detail of those discussions available. As the Member correctly said, my discussions with Margaret Hodge were principally about UNESCO issues and the world heritage site status of the Giant’s Causeway.
The Member criticised the Planning Service, but it is only one part of the jigsaw that is the planning system. Much more goes on outside the Planning Service, but it is often the whipping boy for any delays for which it may not be responsible. Delays may be due to difficulties with funding or the applicant, ongoing consultations, environmental impact assessments, and so forth.
The Planning Service does its job as well as it can with its resources. The Member knows that I am considering a fundamental reform of the planning system. That is no reflection of what has gone before, but it is time for an overhaul, and I look to the House for its support when I bring forward reform proposals later in the year.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Durkan: I, too, welcome the Minister’s statement, which extricates her from the complete misadventure that was created when she made her “of a mind” decision. Even today, the Minister referred to her statement on 10 September 2007 as a decision, and as an “of a mind” decision. However, in the same statement she says that she had not made a decision — and she wonders why there is concern and confusion.
The Minister referred to the fact that —
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr Durkan: The Minister referred to the fact that no other planning application was made. Will she confirm that that was not because of any failure or decision of the National Trust or Moyle District Council, which was what the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was told? Rather, it was because the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s position was that only an application for full planning permission could be made, and that there was also a precondition relating to car parking at the site.
Does the Minister accept that her decision had implications for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s signature tourism project — given that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment previously made a statement within 51 minutes of the Environment Minister’s? We are, therefore, due to hear a statement from him very soon. It damaged the working partnership that had existed between the Departments on that proposal. Given that the issue is a matter of controversy, as the Minister admits, and affects more than one Department, will she tell the House whether she discussed it with her Executive colleagues? I know that the party opposite are precious about adherence to the ministerial code.
Mrs Foster: I found it difficult to hear the last part of the Member’s contribution, but I think that he asked whether I have discussed the issue with Executive colleagues. I made them aware that I would be making a statement this morning.
This is a planning issue — a planning issue alone. I am not going to ask my colleagues to get involved in issues that do not affect their Departments. This is not a cross-cutting issue. [Interruption.]
Mrs Foster: I made what?
Mr Durkan: You made a political —
Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.
Mrs Foster: May I also say — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mrs Foster: One Member is asking me whether I will co-operate with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment to help to promote tourism and to propose planning policy statements on tourism, yet the Chairperson of that Committee is telling me that I should not be speaking to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. That is a rather strange way for joined-up Government to work. However, it is not strange for the SDLP, given what it has been doing over the past two days.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr P Robinson: They are not even a joined-up party.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mrs Foster: Mr Durkan made comments regarding the application that never was and that never formally made it to the Planning Service. There were discussions with Planning Service officials, but it never became a formal application.
It is now eight years since the fire at the Giant’s Causeway, and we are no further on. I hope that, as Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mr Durkan will force the issue on. That is the issue that he should be considering, instead of interfering in the Department of the Environment.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Neeson: As the Minister is probably aware, in the summer of 2002, in my then role as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I chaired an extensive series of meetings between the National Trust and Seymour Sweeney. It is outrageous that, in January 2008, the issue still has not been resolved.
I am pleased that Minister Dodds is present in the Chamber. I consider him as much a part of this sorry mess as anyone else.
Mr Speaker: Will the Member come to his question?
Mr Neeson: Will the Minister assure me and the House that when a new application is submitted — and one will be submitted sooner rather than later — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr Neeson: Will she sit down with Minister Dodds to ensure that this issue is resolved as soon as possible?
Mrs Foster: Any application will obviously have tourism implications. I am happy to speak to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment about that. Those are the issues that I spoke to him about before, and those are the issues that I will continue to speak to him about.
Mr Kennedy: It appears that the DUP has left Mr Sweeney on his tod. [Laughter.]
Thank you. I have been saving that one up. Can I ask — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr Kennedy: I welcome the Minister’s statement. Will the Minister outline the precise grounds for the refusal of the planning application that will be listed when it is referred back — presumably to Moyle District Council? Will she also confirm that the applicant will have the right of appeal?
Mrs Foster: The applicant will have the right of appeal. Any such appeal would be dealt with by the Planning Appeals Commission. I have approved a draft notice of opinion, which includes six grounds of refusal. I am happy to let the Member have a copy of that. It would not be constructive for me simply to read through the six grounds, which are related to UNESCO, integration and the other issues that I mentioned in my statement.
Mr Dallat: Given the underground features of the outline planning application, does the Minister agree that it will be yet another bunker in north Antrim? In future, will she ensure that there is the fullest consultation — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr Dallat: Will she ensure that there is the fullest consultation before she is of an opinion to approve any future application?
Mrs Foster: I did not catch the last part of what was asked.
Mr Dallat: Perhaps if Dr McCrea would give me an opportunity to put my question, the Minister would be able to hear it.
Will the Minister agree that, given that there were underground features in the planning application for the Giant’s Causeway that she proposes to refuse, it would have turned out to be yet another bunker in north Antrim? [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. I have given Members some latitude. I have asked the Member to put his question to the Minister, and I will now ask him to repeat it.
Mr Dallat: Will the Minister accept that because of the international aspect of the Giant’s Causeway, she will undertake the fullest consultation before she is “of a mind” to approve any planning application there?
Mrs Foster: I do not know whether the Member was present when we talked about the bunker last Monday, but I said then that it did not have planning permission either, so I will not go there.
I am very much aware of the international aspect of the Giant’s Causeway, and I took the opportunity to go to the south coast to see how another of the United Kingdom’s natural world heritage sites is being dealt with. There is a panoply of ways being adopted, such as community, private, and publicly owned visitors’ centres. The Member knows that I met Margaret Hodge, and I took on board what was said in the management plan that was approved by UNESCO in 2005.
We are rightly very proud of our world heritage site status at the Giant’s Causeway, and, obviously, that consideration was one of many that were at the forefront of my mind when I took that decision.
Education and Skills Bill: Legislative Consent Motion
The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): I beg to move:
“That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of provisions of the Education and Skills Bill dealing with the functions of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which are contained in clauses 137 and 139 of that Bill as introduced in the House of Commons”.
The provisions in the Education and Skills Bill that relate to Northern Ireland concern changes to the remit of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). Clause 137 of the Bill amends section 24 of the Education Act 1997 in order to provide the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority with a new function to develop and publish criteria for the recognition of bodies wishing to award or authenticate qualifications.
Clause 139 extends the powers of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in Northern Ireland to cover the regulation of vocational qualifications currently excluded from its scope. In Northern Ireland, most qualifications are regulated by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA). Those are general and vocational qualifications and are provided for school pupils or persons in full-time attendance at an institution of further education. The only exception is national vocational qualifications (NVQs), which are regulated by the Qualification and Curriculum Authority. Clause 139 adds other vocational qualifications to the regulatory remit of the authority.
Under the review of public administration, and as part of the streamlining of education administration in Northern Ireland, CCEA should be abolished and its functions transferred to the new education and skills authority. The proposed date for the transfer of functions is April 2009, and although most of the functions will transfer to the education and skills authority, it would not be appropriate to transfer CCEA’s regulatory function for vocationally related qualifications (VRQs)to the education and skills authority. As that regulatory function will not be transferred, it is imperative that steps are taken to ensure that continued regulation of vocationally related qualifications is maintained when CCEA is subsumed by the education and skills authority.
As the issue falls within the area of transferred matters under the provision of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, consent for the proposed Northern Ireland inclusions in the Bill must be sought from the Committee for Employment and Learning, the Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The Committee for Employment and Learning and the Executive have considered the matter, and both have given their consent to proceed with the proposed amendments to the Education and Skills Bill.
The Assembly must now consider the principle of amending the Bill in order to extend the regulatory functions of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in Northern Ireland. The proposed change to the legislation would close the regulation gap that would be left once CCEA had been dissolved and would ensure the continued and necessary regulation of vocationally related qualifications in Northern Ireland. The change would also guarantee that those students who are studying for vocationally related qualifications when the council ceases to exist can be confident that regulation will continue.
I hope that Members will agree with me and support the motion, which has been designed to ensure that there will be no period during which students can doubt the currency of the qualifications that they attain. I request that the Assembly endorses the principle of extending to Northern Ireland the provisions in the Education and Skills Bill that deal with the functions of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Those provisions are contained in clauses 137 and 139 of the Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons on 29 November 2007.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning (Ms S Ramsey): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. On behalf of the Committee for Employment and Learning, I support the motion. The Minister has already explained the need for and purpose behind the legislative consent motion, so I will not repeat what he said. However, I will make a couple of points on behalf of the Committee.
I thank the Minister for the extensive consultation that he undertook with the Committee. I am conscious that he did not wish to bring the matter to the Assembly without the Committee’s support. The Committee was fully briefed on the matter on 26 September 2007 and on 9 January, which was its first meeting after the Christmas recess. Those briefings were important for members because, first, for the first time, they were asked to deal with the concept of a legislative consent motion, and secondly, the matter in question is complex in its own right.
The Committee’s primary concern is that people who are studying for vocational qualifications that are regulated by the Council for the Curriculum Examinations and Assessment are in no way disadvantaged by any reform of that regulatory body, should that occur as planned in April 2009. There is, therefore, a need to ensure that cover is in place to protect those important qualifications.
The Committee was satisfied that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is an appropriate body to provide regulation, if required. It was also satisfied that QCA’s current role in the regulation of qualifications places it in an ideal position to extend those regulations. That experience is strengthened by the fact that QCA maintains a local office, which it has been operating successfully for 10 years.
Although I support the motion, I have written to the Minister for Employment and Learning and the Minister of Education to ask that they keep the situation under review during what will be a period of difficult administrative reform. During the departmental briefings, officials stated that the Minister had been assessing the most appropriate regulation process for our local needs. I have written to the Ministers to urge them to continue to work together and to keep the process under review as the review of public administration rolls out.
The Committee considers that any regulation of critical vocational qualifications should be sensitive and aligned to local requirements and circumstances. In further ensuring that local needs are fully recognised, the Minister has also assured me that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in England cannot enact any part of the legislation that relates to, or has an impact on, local issues without first seeking the approval of the local Minister. Go raibh maith agat.
Ms Lo: I support the motion. It makes sense to extend the remit of QCA to cover VRQs as well as NVQs.
Does the Minister envisage there being any scope for the QCA to examine ways of combining the NVQ and VRQ as one qualification? Students are often confused about the differences between them.
Sir Reg Empey: There is confusion, as Anna Lo said. A review of qualifications is under way. It is a terribly complicated system. Members will have heard the debate yesterday on other matters, which we will not go into today. However, I assure the Member that the Department is examining the matter closely. We do not want people to spend time and energy to get certificates that have no currency with employers. If people work for a qualification, they must be assured that employers around the country will recognise it as a thing of substance, that the qualification means something and that it has a quality-assured standard.
There is a temptation for further education colleges, employers or others to create their own qualifications, and that is a risk. That may not be wrong in itself, but I am concerned about people working, and spending their time and energy, to gain certificates that have no value. That is no use to them or to us, and it is a waste of the student’s time. Therefore, I assure the Member that the matter is important to the Department, and we will not embark on anything that will reduce standards. That is why we do not want to leave a vacuum when the CCEA is absorbed into the education and skills authority.
I assure the Chairman of the Employment and Learning Committee, as I have already assured the Minister of Education, that we are not doing anything today that will in any way inhibit the Assembly from passing further legislation in the future, should it decide to do so. The Assembly is free to create new regulations and arrangements. This legislation will merely prevent a vacuum from developing when the CCEA is absorbed into the education and skills authority. As I told the Committee for Education, the Assembly can take whatever action it wishes and will not be inhibited in any way by this Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of provisions of the Education and Skills Bill dealing with the functions of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which are contained in clauses 137 and 139 of that Bill as introduced in the House of Commons.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to six hours for this debate. The proposer will have up to 90 minutes in which to propose the motion and make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have 10 minutes.
Two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind up.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2008-09 to 2010-11 as set out in the Budget laid before the Assembly on 22 January 2008.
Last Tuesday, I presented the Executive’s revised Budget proposals for the three years to March 2011, following a period of consultation on the draft proposals, which were originally published in October 2007. Today, I seek the Assembly’s approval for those plans, which were unanimously agreed by the Executive. When I launched the revised Budget last week, I provided comprehensive details of the consultation process and the Executive’s response to it. I do not wish to take up an undue amount of the limited time available today by going over all of those issues or going through the Departments’ allocations again.
However, I will emphasise a few key points regarding the Executive’s proposals for Members to consider as we commence the debate and before we vote on the motion. I will also announce how the Executive plan to create and maintain a strong focus on monitoring delivery of their commitments as they use the financial allocations proposed in the Budget.
I turn first to the consultation exercise conducted on the draft Budget proposals published last October. In my statement last Tuesday, I acknowledged the key role played by the statutory Committees of the Assembly in reviewing and reporting on the departmental and cross-cutting implications of the draft Budget proposals. I believe that the Committees must also have an ongoing key role in monitoring and reporting on the delivery of the objectives and targets for which Departments will be responsible and accountable over the next three years, and beyond, as they use the resources proposed for them in the Budget. I will say more on that later.
In addition to consideration of the draft Budget in the Assembly, there was also a public consultation exercise. Over 9,500 written submissions were made during the 10-week consultation period. That number vastly exceeds the level of engagement on any previous Budget consultation.
Let no one say that the Executive have not taken seriously the views of the Assembly or the wider community. We have listened to what has been said, and we have responded to it, with additional funding for the arts, children and youth services, mental health and social housing — all of which were key issues of concern during the consultation process. Those additional allocations build on the position set out in the draft Budget, which included: a freeze on domestic regional rates in cash terms, meaning a real-terms reduction for households; non-domestic rates frozen in real terms; clear prioritisation of economic growth, with associated benefits for all in the community; the largest-ever budget allocation for the Health Service; and the largest-ever programme of investment in public-service infrastructure. The proposals allow for increased support for businesses and funding for schools, as well as improved access to hospital services and additional resources for key public-health matters, such as suicide prevention. In addition, there is funding to enhance the rural economy. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will receive extra funding to deliver a comprehensive approach to victims, as well as resources to embed the rights of older people.
As I have indicated, the final Budget proposals were agreed unanimously by the Executive, providing a clear recognition by all parties that the approach adopted represents the best overall package of measures — within our affordability limits — for all the people of Northern Ireland. There will always be scope to develop further the Budget allocations, and we will revise our spending plans if that becomes necessary.
However, I have been more than saddened, though not unduly surprised, by the approach taken by some who appear to be disappointed that issues raised by Ministers have been resolved. Unfortunately, that has been reflected in the Chamber and outside, where criticisms have been put forward by some who appear to be more interested in opposition for its own sake, to boost their presence in the media, than offering realistic alternatives to improve the Programme for Government or the Executive’s spending plans.
Worse, there are those who place a greater priority on engaging in party-political positioning than on addressing the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. The finalisation of a Budget by the Executive is about making difficult choices. The choices made are in the best interests of Northern Ireland, but, of course, in a democracy, others will differ, and it is right that they should be allowed to say so.
For the Alliance Party and the SDLP, the choices are very different. The Alliance Party is not an Executive party, so it is proper that it should take every platform that our democracy provides to state its case and to challenge ours. I would not inhibit that right. However, the SDLP is in an entirely different position. It is an Executive party. It is in the Executive; it is responsible for making its case in the Executive and contributing to the formulation of the Programme for Government, the investment strategy, and the Budget.
If the SDLP wanted changes made to any of those documents, it should have put forward amendments in the Executive.
I regard it as a considerable achievement for the Executive that we managed to reach unanimous agreement around the table, with Ministers from all four Executive parties signing up to the Programme for Government, the investment strategy for Northern Ireland and the Budget. It is a sign of the political maturity of the Administration, and the parties involved in it, that we managed to balance Departments’ various needs in a way that satisfied everyone. Although no Department achieved all that it would have liked, everyone was prepared to sign up to the sum of the agreed parts.
Let me make it clear: Ministers did not merely agree to their portion of the family of key documents — they agreed to them all as a whole. The Programme for Government and the investment strategy for Northern Ireland are not the property of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister; the Budget is not just mine. All three documents are owned by the Executive. I hope that the Assembly will also identify itself with them.
In order to reach agreement on the Budget, many hours of discussion and negotiation took place with Ministers and officials. That was the opportunity for Ministers to influence the process, and they did so. By the time that the Budget came to the Executive, all Ministers were content to approve it. I must say, therefore, that I find it bizarre that at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute, one party, whose Minister signed up to all of those documents, now seeks to make amendments. That is cynical political opportunism at its worst; politics that is devoid of principle. The public will, however, see through it as a low political stunt. It is made worse by the fact that no amendment was ever made by the Minister for Social Development in the Executive, yet it has been bounced at all of us in the Assembly. That approach is not designed to get the right outcome; it is merely intended to grab a headline and position that party for the future. It is opposition for opposition’s sake. It is an absurd approach from a party that is in Government. It is bereft of any principle and exposes the SDLP as a party that is more interested in short-term political expediency than in good government.
People will want to know whether the SDLP Minister signed up to the Programme for Government, the investment strategy and the Budget in the clear knowledge that her party intended all along to vote against it. Such an approach would pose the most fundamental questions about the good faith of the Minister for Social Development. On the other hand, has the SDLP cut the legs from under its own Minister at the last moment? In that case, how can she remain in office when she lacks the confidence of her own party?
What kind of party has its Minister sign up to the Executive’s key policy instruments and spending plans without ever once proposing any kind of amendment in the Executive, to then vote against the Executive in the Assembly? The SDLP leader said that his party’s approach was no different from that taken by the DUP during the last Assembly. What nonsense! During the last Assembly, the DUP’s goal — [Interruption.]
I have the transcript if the Member wants to read it.
During the last Assembly, the DUP’s goal was to bring down the Executive and to create new political institutions. Is that currently the SDLP’s goal? Moreover, the DUP did not sit on that Executive or endorse its Programme for Government and Budget. The SDLP has had the opportunity to seek amendments to any of those documents at the Executive. It was cynically determined to stay silent in the Executive and to ambush us at the Assembly. The SDLP has embarked on a strategy that deserves nothing more or less than the contempt of the Assembly and the disdain and derision of the public.
It is important that people understand that there are no easy options and that alternative choices have clear implications. Spending cannot be increased in one area without a commensurate reduction somewhere else or an increase in local taxation.
I now turn to the position of the Alliance Party.
A Member: Is it worth it?
Mr P Robinson: Oh yes, it is.
The Member for North Down Dr Farry is quite open about the Alliance Party’s agenda, which I have costed. I applaud him for his honesty. Although his proposals are fiscal folly and fundamentally flawed, I pay tribute to him for telling the people of Northern Ireland that the Alliance Party wants to impose more taxes on them. I thank him for that insight, although his constituents, probably, will not. Sir Humphrey would have called it “courageous”.
Last week, on the BBC programme ‘Hearts and Minds’, Dr Farry agreed with Noel Thompson’s description of the freeze on regional rating as “capitalist populism.” Dr Farry also called for an increase in industrial rating. To meet the cost of the additional funding sought by the Alliance Party, it would be necessary to triple the amount of money that people are paying in domestic rates — that would be the outcome of the Alliance Party’s proposals. I fundamentally disagree with that approach. The Northern Ireland householder deserves a break, given that there have been regional rate increases of 60% over the past five years.
In a difficult international environment, it is important that we give local manufacturing base whatever support that we can — especially when one of the Executive’s priorities is to encourage economic growth. Rather than place a greater burden on householders, we should accept that Government must deliver more.
We should also be careful not to exaggerate the significance of the Deloitte report ‘Research into the financial cost of the Northern Ireland divide’. It is not a panacea. Although it may offer some long-term opportunities, it is not a short-term solution. It will certainly not have the impact suggested by the Alliance Party during the course of the Budget period. The Alliance Party talks about the matter as if there is a pot of money that we can dip into at any time. That, of course, is not so.
As a citizen of Northern Ireland, I sincerely want an end to the wasteful division in our society. As Minister of Finance and Personnel, I welcome any opportunity to reallocate resources to a more productive use. However, the reality is not that simple. The £1·5 billion cost of a divided society quoted in the Deloitte report is an upper limit — and an unrealistic one at that, as there is an implied assumption that the higher level of public expenditure in Northern Ireland is entirely due to division. We all know that that is not the case.
Such an assumption is patent nonsense and ignores the impact of factors such as demographic structure, rurality and deprivation, which also explain why there is a greater need for expenditure in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, I share the view that savings could be made from that source, and I have asked my officials to examine the findings of the report, with a view to identifying those elements that can be addressed in the short term.
Perhaps, rather than hissing from the sidelines, the Alliance Party will engage with me in that exercise.
Some Members: Hiss.
Mr P Robinson: Yes. I said “hissing.”
I invited Alliance Party Members to meet me and discuss the issue — I am still waiting for a response to that invitation. I encourage all Executive Ministers to make as many savings as possible from the cost of division, because they have made it clear to me that the efficiency savings expected over the next three years are equivalent to almost one tenth of current budgets and will represent a significant challenge for them. Thus, all scope for savings needs to be vigorously pursued.
Many Members have commented that the Executive’s agreement of the Budget, the Programme for Government and the investment strategy represents a significant achievement in itself. That is true. However, agreeing proposed departmental budget allocations will not, by itself, deliver the Executive’s objectives which they have set for themselves. They have set those objectives clearly in their Programme for Government and their investment strategy. The mere fact of agreeing the Budget, the Programme for Government and the investment strategy will not, in itself, make the difference. They are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions to create the type of society and economy that we all wish to see.
To make a real difference for all the people of Northern Ireland, we must ensure that we deliver on the commitments that we have made, using the resources that have been allocated in the Budget. That is the challenge that now faces Executive Ministers, their Departments, public bodies and public servants across the length and breadth of the country. I repeat that in three years’ time people will not ask Ministers about the allocations that they received; they will ask them what they delivered.
The Executive have set targets such as: the extension of free public transport to everyone who is aged 60 and over; improvements in mental-health and learning-disability services; the movement of 70,000 working-age benefit clients into employment by March 2011; a 25% reduction in the amount of red tape in the agrifood sector by 2013; the growth of the tourism industry by over 40% by 2011; the alleviation of fuel poverty in 9,000 households each year; the completion of an additional 10,000 social and affordable houses by 2013, representing a 60% increase on the annual figure for 2006-07; and a reduction to nine weeks of the maximum wait for treatment for outpatients and to 17 weeks for inpatients.
The latter target highlights the scale of the Executive’s ambition. We have set a target of 17 weeks as the minimum wait for inpatient treatment. That compares to the target of 78 weeks that the previous Executive set; even that deplorably low ambition was not achieved.
Those are just some examples of the testing targets that the Executive have set. Our focus must now be on delivering those targets, which must be acted on in partnership with local business, the trade unions, and the community and voluntary sectors. Government should not, and cannot, have sole responsibility for delivering improvements to the quality of life. As I pointed out in my Budget statement on January 22 2008, in a global environment, a local Administration can have only a limited impact on economic growth, even in Northern Ireland.
However, listeners to BBC Radio’s ‘Evening Extra’ programme last Tuesday might have thought that the impact of the Budget was being felt far beyond Northern Ireland. The presenter who read the news headlines announced, in one breath, that Peter Robinson delivered his first Budget to the Assembly and that the US Federal Reserve cut its key interest rate by 0·75%. I am concerned at what the global implications might be when I return to the Chamber to discuss the outcome of the February monitoring round.
The key objective in delivering against the Executive’s targets is to develop a culture of robust performance management and delivery that underpins the highest standards of financial management. With more money than ever allocated for the next three years, we must recognise that local people demand and expect public services to have a meaningful impact on, and bring tangible benefits to, their lives. Those benefits will be realised only if the emphasis is on getting the most from the money that is invested in those services. Financial management in the public sector is about the cost-effective delivery of Government priorities, with due regard being paid to risk and opportunity. It is also about safeguarding money that has been entrusted to us by the taxpayer. An effective financial and governance framework that facilitates the delivery of the plans that are set out in the Budget is an essential component in the process.
My Department has an important role to play in and responsibility for providing advice on — and ensuring the delivery of — improvements in the overall standard of financial management, building on the examples of good practice that are already in place. My officials are actively working with Departments in helping to improve financial management and accountability. New systems and processes, such as account Northern Ireland, are being implemented. Along with the Centre for Applied Learning, better training and development opportunities are being made available to staff. New international accounting standards and more timely production of accounts will assist all parts of the public sector to actively improve financial management standards.
Of course, spending the money is only one aspect of delivery. It is equally important that the resources be used efficiently and effectively. The public service agreements to be published shortly will set out in detail how Departments will work together to achieve the targets and outcomes identified in the Programme for Government. The delivery agreements will set out roles and responsibilities, lines of accountability, performance measurement methods and risk management strategies.
The Executive will also put in place monitoring arrangements at a strategic level to ensure that the key outcomes from the Programme for Government are delivered. The model here is a risk-based approach where the degree of scrutiny varies depending on the extent to which progress is being made. Ministers will play a more interventionist role where the delivery of outcomes and targets falls short of expectations. For example, if a Department is not delivering on its key objectives and commitments with the resources that it has been allocated by the Executive, the Executive will have to question whether those resources should remain with that Department or be reallocated elsewhere.
Statutory Committees will have a key role to play in monitoring the performance of their Departments in delivering on the targets and commitments in the Programme for Government and investment strategy. That is one of the conclusions and recommendations in the report on the draft Budget from the Committee for Finance and Personnel. The Committee has also noted that, as we move into a period of more constrained public expenditure growth, there is an even greater onus on Departments to manage public finances in a way that achieves the highest possible level of spend within authorised limits and maximises the impact from available resources. The Committee has recommended that all Statutory Committees should include budgetary and financial scrutiny as an integral part of their work programmes. I strongly support that recommendation.
The performance and efficiency delivery unit will have a vital role in supporting the Executive and Departments in achieving improved outcomes from investment in public services. If the Executive are to achieve the challenging objectives that we have set for ourselves, we must create a new focus on performance, efficiency and delivery across all areas of public-sector activity.
One of the main responsibilities of the Department of Finance and Personnel is to monitor how efficiently Departments spend their money. Therefore, the new unit in my Department will identify and work with specific areas of public-sector activity where there is scope for improved delivery or efficiency, and will seek to secure better levels of performance. It will also identify options for further efficiency savings in specific areas, over and above the targets already set out for the next three years. There will be a small number of core staff in the unit. That will provide plenty of scope to involve others in specific pieces of work that the unit will carry out — individuals from other Departments and public bodies, staff working in front-line public-service delivery, audit staff and staff from private-sector organisations can lend specific expertise and experience in particular areas.
I also wish to have access to advice on how best to achieve significant and sustainable improvements in the performance and delivery of large and complex organisations. Therefore, I will establish an advisory panel consisting of individuals who have a strong track record of managing and leading successful and strategic organisational change, involving the delivery of better-quality services and greater efficiency.
Many people will be involved in ensuring that the improved outcomes identified in the Programme for Government and the investment strategy are delivered for the people of Northern Ireland. The starting point is the financial allocation made to each Department in the Executive’s final Budget proposals. Those allocations will provide a solid basis on which all the Executive Ministers can now begin the task of ensuring delivery on our commitments to everyone in our community.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Dr Farry: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert:
“calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to lay a revised programme of expenditure proposals for 2008-09 to 2010-11 before the Assembly, as the Budget currently before the Assembly does not properly address the deep divisions in this society and the need to build a shared future; does not make meaningful changes to balance the regional economy; and fails to provide for sustainable and integrated public services.”
I oppose the Budget. However, the Alliance Party does not oppose the Budget for the sake of it. There will be times when the Alliance Party backs actions from the Executive. We support elements of the Budget.
The Alliance Party opposes the Budget because it is flawed, and there is an alternative way forward. Although we congratulate the Finance Minister on getting the Budget to the Assembly and recognise that it is a major piece of work, the Minister must respect the Alliance Party’s entitlement to put forward its alternative views — but, I think, we have that respect.
Last week, the Minister said that everyone should put their shoulder to the wheel in this new Northern Ireland. However, some people have doubts about the direction in which we are going.
There are flaws in the substance of the Budget. First, there is a lack of reference to a shared future, and not enough effort has been made to address the savings that have been made from no longer tackling the costs of a violent society. The Minister has made some rhetorical references to that in his Budget statements, but it is not a central theme in the Budget. Efforts to identify efficiency savings from tackling division are referred to PEDU for longer-term consideration, but we want to make a start.
The Minister referred to the report from Deloitte, which is a well-established consultancy firm that is respected around the world. That report must be given serious consideration, and the Alliance Party is concerned that it has been shelved by the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
The Alliance Party went into the election stating that the costs of a divided society amounted to £1 billion — not £1·5 billion. We have tabled a motion for future discussion, so that Members can air their views on the contents of the Deloitte report. The report is strong in its tackling of the direct costs and opportunity costs of a divided society, but its addressing of the embedded costs of duplicate goods, facilities and services — particularly in education, which I will talk about later — is weak.
There is no new investment into shared services, such as better public services for the entire community. Change will take time, but we must make a start. The Executive’s emphasis on economic development is welcome, but there is little appreciation that meaningful and sustainable growth is not possible without the tackling of divisions in society and the promotion of a shared future alongside it. Divisions have an impact on labour mobility, and they deter inward investment.
There are clear international lessons that the most successful societies in the world tend to be those that are most open to new ideas and those that are most tolerant.
Secondly, the Budget is a recipe for a low-tax society rather than for genuine investment in economic growth. The Finance Minister has taken an already tight comprehensive spending review settlement from London and made it even tighter. Contrary to the impression that was given last week, there is not universal support for the taxation and spending framework. The approach taken to taxation has been questioned by such organisations as the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) — diverse organisations.
A low taxation approach, at the expense of investment in public services, is regressive. The benefits will disproportionately benefit the more affluent elements of society and hurt those who are less well off — particularly those who depend on public services and, perhaps, do not pay as high rates as others. The approach is populist and not based on evidence. Furthermore, the claimed benefits of £1,000 per household have been questioned by Oxford Economics.
Much of the Budget depends upon the 3% efficiency savings being achieved. The Alliance Party has no doubt that efficiency savings of 3% are possible, and such annual savings in the private sector are routine. However, we are concerned about the narrow ground over which those savings are being sought. There are big questions about how public services are being delivered, and they are not targeted in the Budget. The most obvious area in that regard is education, particularly through the policy on sustainable schools.
There are huge inefficiencies in the school estate, and, so far, a policy for area planning and collaboration between schools has not been produced never mind incorporated into the documents that the Assembly is discussing this week. The wisdom of attempting a considerable amount of capital-assets sales at a time when the property market has slowed down is not entirely obvious either.
Much of the control of the economy lies outside the control of the Assembly. That is reflected in the fact that many of the targets before the House are ambitious — something we welcome — but aspirational, without clear evidence of the means to deliver them.
We also have to reflect on the British Government’s regional policy — if that is what it can be called — in which the interests of London and the south-east of England are prioritised at the expense of the rest of the regions, thus leaving us in a dependency situation.
It is unfortunate that targets for measuring economic conversions have been changed.
Rather than comparing our performance with the UK average, we are now to be compared to the UK average minus the south-east of England. Although I understand the desire to remove distortions that arise as a result of real growth in the south-east, rather than simply considering the overall balance of the national economy, we are now reduced to a regional dependency culture and to fighting over the scraps from the table.
Having said that, there are other factors that are in our control, and the investment in the four identified economic drivers is welcome. However, an obvious point that has been made by the Confederation of British Industry and others is that, rather than adopting populist taxation measures, more resources could have been poured into those drivers.
In addition, rather than truly embracing globalisation, we are still focused on an old-fashioned approach to economic support. For example, money is to be poured into modernising agriculture — and I will probably lose the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development on this point. However, agriculture is a shrinking element of the overall economy. From such investment, other sectors could have benefited more and achieved a greater leap forward in productivity.
Much of our inward-investment strategy still depends on the grant-making approach of selective-financial assistance. A properly informed debate —
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Dr Farry: I am sorry, but I have a lot to get through.
There must be a properly informed debate on the relative merits of investing in selective financial assistance compared with greater investments in the economic drivers.
The one fiscal tool that the Minister has at his disposal — industrial derating — is, effectively, anachronistic, and was first introduced in Northern Ireland in 1929 — the year of the great depression. By contrast, England banned industrial derating as far back as the 1960s. The Minister has ignored the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland’s evidence-based approach, which states that, rather than keeping industrial derating at 30%, it would be safe to increase it to 50% and, as a consequence, raise some lost revenue. Hence, rather than being governed by evidence, our overall approach has been governed more by populism.
It is not necessary to match funding allocations in the rest of the United Kingdom. Devolution is about setting different priorities. However, we should make informed choices, and the Alliance Party has already highlighted the imbalance between roads and public-transport expenditure. The arts sector, which was the most vocal sector during the consultation period, has received an additional £2 million per annum, and that is useful. However, clearly, that does not bring arts funding into line with at least the UK average. Given that Northern Ireland is comparatively advantaged by its artistic talents, that should be an area in which we should invest.
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Dr Farry: Finally, I will concentrate on health. The Minister has acted like the grand old Duke of York — marching us to the top of the hill and back down again — in his campaign for proper National Health Service funding in Northern Ireland. For the sake of a facade of unity in the Executive, he seems to have settled for much less than what is required to maintain a level of healthcare that is on a par with the rest of the United Kingdom. In order to keep pace with funding in the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland requires a health budget of at least £4·4 billion, and, to maintain the same level of service, the revised Budget leaves a health funding shortfall of £200 million. The DUP can talk all it wants about record Health Service funding, but the simple fact is that we are not keeping pace with the rest of the UK.
In the revised Budget, there is little genuine new money for health. The efficiency savings are simply reprocessed existing money, and the moneys that come from monetary rounds will have no effect on the underlying baselines. The £10 million per annum for mental health is the only genuinely new money, and that is barely sufficient to address the serious underfunding in that critical area of healthcare. We spend a measly 8% of the health budget on mental health, compared to the UK average of 12%.
All around the world, health costs are rising — people are living longer and the price of drugs and new technologies are rising. Sadly, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland continues to have a much higher per capita needs base. It would be good if the Executive were to suggest that we tackle and reduce that needs gap, but that is not the case.
Clearly, efficiency savings in the Health Service are necessary.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Dr Farry: However, they must not come as a result of cost cutting and denying funds. Such savings are necessary in order that money can be reinvested into new services. Rather than addressing the population’s evolving needs, the new money — in so far as we have any — is barely enough to keep up with inescapable pressures.
Mr Speaker: Your time is up.
Mr O’Loan: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert:
“calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to lay before the Assembly a revised programme of expenditure proposals for 2008-09 to 2010-11, as the Budget proposals currently before the Assembly do not provide clear budgetary lines for key policy developments, including the anti-poverty strategy; fail to set out funding commitments in respect of proposed reforms in post-primary education; abandon cross-cutting funds, including a fund for children and young people; and are unclear in their implications for householders in terms of future charging for water.”
Mussolini made the trains in Italy run on time, and the responsibility of the Finance Minister — through the Budget — is to have the same effect on the literal and metaphorical trains in our society. As Members know, the literal trains in our society often do not run on time — sometimes not at all. There are many trains in our society that do not provide the service that they should. The SDLP’s approach to the Budget is influenced by its principles; the SDLP is a social democratic party and is committed to an inclusive society that tackles disadvantage — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr O’Loan: A society that provides equality, is socially just, and sustains the environment. The SDLP believes in a balance of economic and social investment — we are committed to economic development but regard economic and social development as interdependent. That is not adequately reflected in the Programme for Government or the Budget, which are too short term. Social spending now will produce economic benefit in the future.
The Budget cannot be considered without looking at the overall context: Northern Ireland is in long-term relative economic decline, which — one could argue — began at the time of partition. However, that is a debate for another day. Our infrastructure is obsolete, and we have a deeply divided society that was created, and exacerbated, by more than 30 years of conflict. Some Members have a lot to answer for in relation to that conflict. Therefore, the Budget has a major job to do.
There is, of course, some substance and value in the Budget, as we stated in the debate on the Programme for Government yesterday. However, we have concerns about the Budget. One concern is about our divided society; I am holding a Northern Ireland Community Relations Council journal, which has a picture of a beautiful park in Belfast with trees, grass, paths and everything else that one would expect. However, running through that park is a corrugated iron fence between eight and 10 feet high, which separates the Catholic side from the Protestant side. Sometimes a picture says more than a thousand words.
Some Members: That is a shame.
Mr O’Loan: It is a shame, but there is nothing in the Programme for Government or Budget that directly addresses that issue. There is a danger in creating, or attempting to create, a separate but equal society. That would be doomed to failure but might suit the two largest parties in the Assembly. The Alliance Party must not claim sole ownership of the issue, because it is built into the founding principles of the SDLP. The Alliance Party should not claim to be the sole party of opposition. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr O’Loan: We claim our ministerial position as a right, but also assert our right to oppose what we think needs opposition in any area of Executive policy. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order, the Member has the Floor.
Mr O’Loan: It is clear that our tactics and strategy have caused discomfort for some Members. Our party is totally united on its tactics and strategy. [Laughter.]
Mr Ford: I am pleased to hear Mr O’Loan talk about the necessity of building a shared future, which the north Belfast park he mentioned clearly demonstrates. Why does the SDLP amendment not mention a shared future?
Mr O’Loan: We made our stance clear in the debate on, and our proposed amendment to, the Programme for Government — the two are closely linked.
Our Government is not joined up enough; a perennial problem in government is trying to get Departments working together. Important issues requiring two or more Departments to work together often fall by the wayside because neither Department takes the lead. One clear example of that can be seen in the children’s fund. There must be more strategic focus on that key issue, which is a vital one if we are to tackle child poverty. Children in poverty are handicapped in life’s race, and they inevitably fall behind. Creating a separate fund for children would give the issue more focus and would provide the option for bids to be made for more funds in-year. The SDLP believes that that is the better way forward.
Members have been told that the reform of secondary schools will be the biggest change in 60 years, yet, remarkably, it is not referred to in the Programme for Government and it is therefore not budgeted for. The reform has been referred to as being cost neutral. However, the Minister of Finance and Personnel has indicated that he would be uncomfortable about such an assertion. The SDLP sees that as a major weakness in the Budget.
There is also lack of clarity in the Budget. The public service agreements have no clear budget lines attached to them, therefore one cannot know how much will be spent on each one. There is also the uncertainty about water charging. The Executive have taken no decisions on how water will be paid for. The strand-two report has just been published, and all proposals will, in due course, be issued for consultation. SDLP Members will not be hung out to dry on water proposals that we have not seen and approved.
There are other areas in which the SDLP feels that the Budget’s success is being predicated on uncertain propositions. For example, are the efficiency savings going to be real? The Minister of Finance and Personnel knows the answer to that — or if he does not know, I am sure that he will soon receive a piece of paper from his officials telling him that close to one half of the efficiency savings posited for his own Department come from a mere accountancy adjustment whereby an already-received receipt is transferred from one column to another. There is an element of smoke and mirrors about the Budget.
We can be sure that accounting officers throughout the public service, taking their lead from the Department of Finance and Personnel, will be exerting themselves to find manoeuvres in which efficiency savings such as these can be found. However, in some places real changes will be made in order to meet efficiency demands, and those may damage front-line services, particularly in Departments and agencies, such as the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Social Security Agency, in which such services form their core business.
The area of asset sales is very problematic. Workplace 2010 is designed to deliver an upfront payment in the order of £170 million. That sum, given the present state of the property market becomes very questionable. The general issue, having identified assets for sale, is when to sell those assets and how much might be realised from selling them — that is a very problematic area.
The SDLP recognises the gain of £205 million for social housing that has been made between the draft Budget and the final Budget. I commend the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie for the effort that she had to make to obtain that money. It was money that should have been in the draft Budget in the first place. However, she has also made it clear that the revised figure will still not be enough for her to meet the Executive’s targets.
In his statement, the Minister of Finance and Personnel referred to £1,000 in savings per household. I say to people: do not book your holidays on the strength of that. I would not even book a weekend in Castlereagh. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr O’Loan: People should not suppose that it will be an annual saving. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr O’Loan: The sum is not even being calculated over the three years covered by the Budget. If the figure is to be meaningful then it is to be calculated over a four-year period, which was what the Minister said in his statement on the draft Budget. The fact is that people will never see that money in their hands. If water charging is introduced, either through rates bills or household bills, people will not see any reductions or money being returned when those bills land on their mats.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
Mr O’Loan: They will see instead an increase of the order of 25%.
I hope that the Minister, when he sums up, will confirm —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr O’Loan: — that there is funding for the Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre in his Budget proposals.
As a party, we have presented sound reasons for our amendment.
Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to take his seat.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I take this opportunity to commend the Minister and his officials for accomplishing the very challenging task of co-ordinating and compiling the Budget on behalf of the Assembly.
The Budget that we are debating today aims to support and deliver the strategic priorities set out in the Programme for Government, including: growing our economy; investing in infrastructure; modernising public services; environmental protection; and promoting tolerance, inclusion, health and well-being.
I thank the Minister also for his acknowledgement of the role that the Committee for Finance and Personnel and the other Assembly Committees played in the process. That culminated in the Committee publishing a co-ordinated report on the draft Budget on 8 January 2008 on behalf of all the Assembly departmental scrutiny Committees. The report set out 21 overarching conclusions and recommendations that aim to influence the Executive in its future work.
With regard to the Executive’s strategic priorities, the Committee recognises the pressing need to raise productivity and living standards in the North and therefore welcomes the increased focus on economic growth. The Committee considers that the new emphasis on the economy necessitates the early publication of a new and revised regional economic strategy that sets out how the Executive’s high-level goals will be realised. That should include a cross-cutting implementation plan for the four productivity drivers — skills, enterprise, innovation and infrastructure. I believe that a new regional economic strategy takes on even greater significance and urgency in the context of the very disappointing Varney report and the global economic challenges ahead.
The Committee is also mindful of the importance of the Executive’s other priorities regarding infrastructure, health, equality, public services and the environment. We all recognise that there are only finite resources available to meet many of the demands in terms of maintaining and improving public services. The focus is therefore on ensuring that the resources available to the Executive are deployed strategically and fairly, with the emphasis being on activities and programmes that support the delivery of key priorities.
In its report on the draft Budget, my Committee acknowledged the constraints within which the Executive have to operate. The outcome of the comprehensive spending review means that real-terms growth in public expenditure here over the next three years will average only 1·2% a year. The Committee also recognises that the Executive have had to address a range of legacy issues inherited from the direct rule period, including water and domestic rating reform, which were the cause of mounting public concern.
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Durkan tax.
Mr McLaughlin: My colleague reminds us of the legacy of the disastrous deal that Mark Durkan and David Trimble struck with the British Treasury.
As a consequence, the revised Budget places a strong emphasis on efficiency and value for money. The Committee responded to that positively in its report by examining a range of strategic and cross-cutting budgetary issues with a view to identifying ways of maximising the impact from limited resources. In particular, it recommended a range of specific measures aimed at supporting the efficiency drive, eradicating the culture of underspend and raising the performance of Departments in managing public money for the delivery of front-line services.
Mr O’Loan: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand that when you called Mr McLaughlin to speak it was as the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel. He has expressed political views, making reference to Mark Durkan, that are certainly not the determined views of the Committee. They are clearly party-political views. Mr Speaker, I ask for a ruling on that matter.
The Speaker: Order. Mr McLaughlin had already indicated that he would make remarks as Chairperson of the Committee and as a Member of this Assembly.
Mr Storey: Point of order, Mr Speaker.
The Speaker: Order. We saw an example this morning of a Chairperson of a Committee who dwelt on political issues.
Order, Members. Order. I normally give the Chairpersons of Committees some latitude. Unfortunately, some exceed their position. However, Mr McLaughlin came to the Table and indicated clearly that he wished to speak as Chairperson of the Committee, but that he would make some personal remarks. That was absolutely clear.
Mr Storey: On a point of order, Mr Speaker, if the honourable Member asks for a point of order — although that is consistent with SDLP inconsistency — will you also make a ruling on the issues to which you referred, regarding Patsy McGlone’s disgraceful comments when he spoke as Chairperson of his Committee? Those were political comments; therefore, the SDLP cannot pick and choose.
Mr Speaker: I will take no further points of order on the issues. We shall move on.
Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Even as Chairperson, I believe I have the right to speak on matters of record, and this matter has, on many occasions, been addressed, not only by members of my Committee, but by Members of this Assembly.
Mr Durkan: Mr Speaker, the Member —
Mr Speaker: I said that I would take no further points of order on this particular issue. I ask the Member to continue.
Mr McLaughlin: The Committee considered a range of key financial management issues, including the planned reduction in overcommitment; the new requirement of the Executive to negotiate with the Treasury each year for access to end-of-year flexibility; and the level of annual underspend by Departments, which is unacceptably high in comparison with other regions.
The Committee concluded that those issues combined to place a heavy onus on Departments to manage public finances in a way that achieves the highest possible level of spend within authorised limits, and maximises the impact from available resources.
A further cross-cutting theme in the Budget is the reform agenda, in which the Department of Finance and Personnel will have a key role. The Civil Service reform programmes are expected to realise a range of benefits and value-for-money savings across the 11 Departments. Those benefits will be measured by a series of key performance indicators that will be integrated into departmental business planning. Again, the Committee will continue to review and monitor the work of the Department against targets set for each of the relevant programmes.
I have addressed only some of the issues covered in the Committee’s co-ordinated approach, particularly the importance of the financial management agenda, together with the drive to reform the public sector and to deliver value for money and efficiencies, all of which will enable the improvement to front-line services that our people deserve.
Those areas will require ongoing monitoring and scrutiny by the Committee for Finance and Personnel, together with the other statutory Committees and the wider Assembly, over the next three financial years of the Budget period.
The period 2008-2011 will present the Executive, and all of us in the Assembly, with both a challenge and an opportunity to prove that devolution can make a real difference to people’s lives, and that locally accountable, elected representatives and Ministers can take a much more sensitive approach to the nuances and the realities of social and economic life in the North.
I conclude with some remarks in respect of my party role as spokesperson on economic — [Laughter.]
My remarks concern the use of public finance initiatives (PFI). A considerable weight of evidence confirms Sinn Féin’s belief that PFI and PPP represent poor value for the public purse. Local examples include the car park project at the Royal Victoria Hospital and at Balmoral High School. Public Service provision under PFI will create problems for the Executive in future years. The net result of setting PFI contracts will be —
Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?
Mr McLaughlin: I am sorry.
The net result of setting PFI contracts will be that the Executive will progressively take on more and more long-term debt, and, in future, a greater proportion of the total Budget available to Ministers.
Sinn Féin will argue, as will its Ministers, that PFI contracts are not the preferred option of the Executive. Civil servants, and others responsible for designing projects, should be instructed to put equal, or greater, effort into alternative funding models, instead of PPP or PFI projects.
On investment, Sinn Féin welcomes many of the commitments in the Programme for Government, the Budget and ISNI II. However, it will be important that those commitments be turned into reality and that they deliver for the most disadvantaged in society. Sinn Féin welcomes the £18 billion that is to be invested in the next 10 years. In particular, we welcome the explicit commitments to the promotion of social inclusion and equality in the procurement of infrastructure programmes.
Furthermore, the reviews of water reform, domestic and industrial rates and Civil Service reform — as well as the systemic efficiency programmes across all Departments — will, Sinn Féin expects, demonstrate again the benefits of having a locally accountable Assembly.
On regional disparities, Sinn Féin is concerned that the commitment in this Budget and in ISNI II to promote regional balance does not go far enough and may not effectively address the legacy of the past, which has led to institutionalised disadvantage west of the Bann and in deprived areas such as north and west Belfast. Sinn Féin will continue to address that issue as we go forward.
Sinn Féin will continue to press the Executive and the Assembly to ensure that a commitment to the eradication of structural regional inequalities over a timetabled period is accomplished. Furthermore, we want to see the maximum decentralisation of public-sector jobs to redress historical disparity and imbalance and to support balanced regional development.
Finally, there is obvious confusion within the SDLP. I presume that I have some time, as a result of the interruptions?
Mr Speaker: No, you have 10 minutes.
Mr McLaughlin: OK.
The Minister for Social Development should consider — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order, Members. The Member has the Floor.
Mr McLaughlin: The Minister for Social Development should consider making a statement to this Assembly and to a bemused public. Did she seek and receive support from her party leader and colleagues? Is endorsing the Programme for Government, ISNI II and the Budget compatible with the party’s policies? Last week she and Mark Durkan were proclaiming that their hard-line negotiating skills were a rationale for voting for and supporting the final documents at the Executive’s meeting. Perhaps the Minister will explain whether she proposed any amendments — the Minister of Finance and Personnel has challenged that. Did she propose any amendments during those discussions? Did she change her mind and betray her commitment to her ministerial colleagues, or did her party wobble when hardy came to hardy and, effectively, abandon her?
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension today. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 12.32 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair) —
Mr Storey: I should say in the first instance that I will make my opening remarks in my capacity as an Assembly Member, and I will make my final comments in my capacity as the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel.
It is right and proper that we place on record that we are debating a Budget at a time when one party in our four-party mandatory coalition does not seem to know what being part of that coalition means.
Declan O’Loan, who is one of my North Antrim constituency colleagues, said earlier that he would not allow a situation to develop in which the SDLP would be hung out to dry. It is obvious that he was not referring to one of his colleagues, Margaret Ritchie, the Minister for Social Development. The SDLP has done exactly what it said it would not allow: it has hung the Minister out to dry.
No press conference in this Building today and no attempt at unity by the SDLP will be able to mask the problems that now exist in that party. It has a Minister whom it has abandoned and does not support. We will probably see its Members again this afternoon in the political theatre of voting against the Budget. That is an issue for their electorate and on which that electorate will undoubtedly pass comment.
Therefore, having made those points, which reflect my personal perspective on the political charade that is going on with the SDLP, I will move the debate on to discuss the issues that have been of interest to the Committee of which I am the Deputy Chairperson. At the outset, I thank the Minister for his remarks.
Mr P Robinson: We are currently seeing the spectacle of the Minister for Social Development being present in the Chamber alongside her party leader.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I ask the Minister to please address his remarks to the Chair. When Members turn towards others, as the Minister is doing, the volume disappears somewhat.
Mr P Robinson: That might be a blessing for some, Mr Deputy Speaker. It will certainly be a blessing for the SDLP. Since both the Minister for Social Development and her party leader are present, I wonder whether they would answer the question that was asked earlier: if there were something inherently wrong with the Programme for Government, the investment strategy or the Budget, why did their Minister table no amendment to those in Executive meetings? Alternatively, did they shaft their Minister at a later stage?
Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for his intervention. I remind him that earlier, the leader of the SDLP commented in the House that his Minister had expressed reservations. There is a vast difference between expressing reservations and coming up with ideas, proposals and amendments to a Budget and a draft strategy. Obviously, the SDLP does not really know where it is going on this issue.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Mr Storey: No, I have already given up some of my time, and I want to get to the substance of the issues that concern the Committee of which I am the Deputy Chairperson.
I thank the Minister of Finance and Personnel for his remarks and for his opening comments on the revised Budget. His comments explain the key challenges, pressures and priorities that lie ahead for the Executive.
The work that the Committee for Finance and Personnel has done on strategic budgetary issues has already been mentioned. I will focus my comments on DFP’s own Budget allocation and its importance in helping the Department to achieve the targets that have been set for it in the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, for which it takes lead responsibility.
In its response to the draft Budget, the Committee noted that DFP allocation for current expenditure between 2008 and 2011 represents a significant reduction in the Department’s share of departmental expenditure limit funds. That reflects a pattern of reduced funding for DFP; even the current year allocation is 17·1% lower than that of 2006-07. Although the Committee has concerns about the impact that that reduction could have, it is particularly uneasy about the Department’s capital allocations.
The Department of Finance and Personnel submitted a bid for approximately £94·2 million over the three financial years from 2008 to 2011 but was allocated £68·7 million.
The Committee has particular concerns over whether the capital allocations to Land and Property Services will be sufficient to allow the agency to alleviate the difficulties associated with its IT systems, especially those that deal with rate relief. Moreover, Land Registers of Northern Ireland and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland will merge with Land and Property Services on 1 April 2008. Those changes will present a real challenge to an agency that is responsible for the delivery of important front-line services. The Committee will continue to pursue the matter, and it has scheduled a scrutiny of that area of concern into its work programme over the coming weeks.
The Committee has already produced a report on Workplace 2010, and it continues to scrutinise the future progress and direction of that project. That major accommodation project will affect all Departments and is expected to generate approximately £175 million in capital receipts during the Budget period.
The Committee has also expressed concerns to DFP about the apparent delay in the implementation of Workplace 2010. That delay came to light when the Committee considered the Department’s input into the revised Programme for Government. The Committee will investigate that matter further tomorrow, when it will also examine the findings of the evaluation of the Workplace 2010 pilot project at Clare House. The potential consequences for the Budget of any significant delay in implementing Workplace 2010 will be of particular concern.
The Department of Finance and Personnel has lead responsibility for other key reform programmes, such as NI Direct, which will ultimately provide a single telephone point of contact for public services and the various shared-service centres, including HR Connect, Account NI and Records NI. The Committee recognises that those reform programmes underpin the Budget, in that they will contribute to achieving wider efficiency targets and will allow accrued savings to be redirected into the delivery of key front-line services. However, the Committee has recently been informed that the reform programme, including NI Direct, is to be funded out of future monitoring rounds. Consequently, the Committee is concerned that that approach attaches some uncertainty to funding for those important projects, and that, in turn, could result in delays and affect the wider efficiency drive. Such important, high-profile programmes, particularly in the case of NI Direct, will require priority.
The Committee was also concerned about the Department’s allocation for improvements in the energy performance of Government buildings and for measures linked to the sustainable development strategy, because those allocations run contrary to the prominence that the Executive afforded sustainability in the Programme for Government. I have pointed to the relative decline in the resource available to DFP, and it is intended that that will be supplemented through efficiency savings.
The Department has a target to deliver cash-releasing efficiencies of £5·7 million, £10·3 million and £14·8 million respectively over the next three financial years. Such efficiency targets will present DFP, and other Departments, with a considerable challenge. The Committee will continue to scrutinise regularly DFP’s progress in achieving its efficiency delivery plan, and it has recommended that the other Statutory Committees do likewise.
As was mentioned earlier, one of the major strategic issues that has arisen from the Committee’s investigation is the unacceptable level of underspend across Departments. Such moneys could be used to tackle a range of ongoing needs rather than be left to accumulate at year-end. The Department of Finance and Personnel has a key role to play in leading the drive to minimise underspending, and the Committee will monitor the progress that the Department makes in driving the financial-management agenda and the way in which it leads by example, by ensuring the efficiency forecasting and monitoring of its own expenditure, and thereby minimising its underspend.
To conclude, the Committee will also continue to monitor the impact that the resource and capital allocations proposed for the Department of Finance and Personnel in the revised Budget will have on delivery, and how the Department plans to manage with allocations that are significantly below the amount sought. I support the motion.
Mr McNarry: I wish to make it clear from the outset that I welcome the Minister’s assurance that there will be scope to revise spending plans if necessary. That is an important commitment to record, particularly given the restrictions within which his Department has had to work in preparing the Budget.
Buzzwords have bounced around the Chamber lately. Expressions such as “we are where we are” and “it is time to move on” are, no doubt, meant to encourage a feel-good factor and demonstrate that devolution is working. However, last week, the Minister of Finance and Personnel sounded a cautionary note in his foreword to the Budget document:
“Recent years have seen above average rates of growth in public spending which will sharply decelerate in the coming three years. This will undoubtedly cause difficulties and challenges in terms of the need to prioritise resources on where they will result in most benefit.”
Ulster Unionists recognised that warning. Indeed, we first sounded it some time ago.
The Minister may recall grimacing as he said hello to me last week after his Budget statement. I recall that because I am more used to the grimace than the hello these days. He will remember that when I passed him, I said: “That was all right.” That is true; his statement was simply that — it was not brilliant or great, it was just as I told him: it was all right.
This Budget represents a weak cocktail mix — it has no fizz. Why is that? The Minister knows what we all know: that this Budget lacks the sparkle of the promised financial package from Gordon Brown, on which there was no delivery. So tight is the Budget that it is close to imploding. It squeezes spending out of the efficiencies to such an extent that no one knows for certain whether the 3% efficiency targets can be met.
However, we know that if only half the savings are made, a shortfall of £435 million will mean a large hole in the Budget. This is a high-wire Budget, and if it has a safety net, perhaps the Minister will tell us how far he can fall before he ejects himself from office, or runs for help. I am rather caught between two stools on that matter. On one hand, the very thought of the Minister ejecting himself from office is most appealing. On the other hand — perhaps I will leave that for another day.
I shall outline the Ulster Unionist Party’s position from this secure premise: its Members are in Government as of right, and they are there to assert the mandate that has been given to our party. That mandate has led to our taking on more financial responsibility than any other party in the Executive. Those responsibilities see two Ulster Unionist Ministers controlling over 56% of the revenue allocations. Contrast that with the percentages for the parties that control the votes in this House: the DUP, with its four Ministers, is responsible for only 8% of the revenue allocations; and Sinn Féin, with its three Ministers, musters 30%. Not even the combined score of those two parties’ seven Ministers gets close to our 56%. Therefore, we will not vote against the Budget, which was agreed by our Ministers.
I am proud of the stand that was taken by our party’s MLAs and Ministers when first declaring our resistance to the draft Budget. Today’s final Budget agreement justifies our stance. If our Ministers had rolled over and bowed the knee to the spurious accusations that were levelled at them — which, in one instance, led to the suspension of the Chairperson of the Health Committee — the Budget would not have been agreed, nor would it have been inclusive of the entire Executive.
The fact that Ulster Unionists hold responsibility for over 56% of the revenue allocation signifies our commitment to real responsibility, none of which we will walk away from. However, the party’s concerns and reservations also illustrate responsible thinking. We will monitor every decision that is taken. We will not tell the electorate that it is acceptable to wait 40, 50 or even 100 years before a road can be repaired; or that child poverty will be eradicated by 2010, when it will not; or that the poorest of our families will have to pay for water when they cannot afford to; or that there is a “live now, pay after death” system for fixed-income pensioners in respect of water charges.
How can we drum up support for a capital spend on sport of £111 million when £70 million of that is to be set aside for a stadium for which there is, as yet, no business case? Who knows when or where it will be built, or, indeed, whether it will be built at all? Remove that £70 million, and the remaining balance of £41 million leaves little to go around for sport in the next three years.
Education is in a total mess, with parents, pupils and teachers up in arms about the policy efficiencies of a rudderless Department that badly needs a new Minister and a change in policy direction. Who can guarantee that any money that is given to that Minister will be properly spent for the benefit of children in Northern Ireland?
In essence, the Budget is reliant on efficiency savings of 3% being made. Any slippage could cause serious chaos or freefall. Independent economic analysis suggests that it will be virtually impossible to achieve 3% savings. However, in a rather bullish statement that was reprinted in last Saturday’s ‘News Letter’, the Minister boasted that as a first step, domestic regional rates will be frozen for three years. He went on to say:
“the average household…will be £1,000 better off.”
Last week, Graeme Harrison, a leading economist with Oxford Economics was quoted in ‘The Irish News’ as saying:
“Northern Ireland is likely to face pressure to balance its books as domestic rates bills are much lower than in Britain. If this time comes, rates may rise quite significantly which will be a bitter pill to swallow.”
It would be a bitter pill indeed for average householders should water charges tap into their household income and leave them £1,000 worse off.
Is the Assembly being somewhat reckless in overstating a Budget, the delivery of which is built on speculation? What will happen if crucial efficiency targets are not met? What contingency plans are in place should efficiency savings fail to materialise? How will the Departments distinguish between cuts and savings? What happens if the efficiencies unravel and the Executive are forced to increase rates bills substantially to balance the books?
My party’s contribution to today’s debate will be constructive and penetrating. Our participation in the House is the same as in the Executive: we act in good faith, with the aim of reaching as broad a consensus as possible. However, make no mistake: we will retain our serious reservations about the Budget until we are satisfied that they are no longer valid.
Those who attempt to browbeat the UUP Ministers, or any of my colleagues, and who once chided members of my party as being pushovers, should take a good look at themselves. Perceived dominance is a kidding machine. Those people should take some friendly advice from me: they, not the UUP, are responsible for making the daily headlines that do not cover them in glory. Commentators, columnists and the letters pages are pulling their parties — not mine — to bits.
The Ulster Unionists have moved on: we are reinvigorated, and we relish the challenges that lie ahead in the Executive, the Committees, and in building our relationships with the public. Ulster Unionists will step up to the mark on the Budget: where it succeeds, and we hope that it does, we will applaud it. Where it fails, and our reservations point to the probability of some serious failures, we will denounce it. For now, the Ulster Unionist Party joins its Ministers in approving the Budget.
Mr Hamilton: I congratulate the Minister and all his Executive colleagues on agreeing the Budget, which is a significant document for any legislature. In today’s Northern Ireland Assembly, it represents a major milestone on the road away from direct rule. The four parties that are in power represent 90% of the population. For those four parties — the DUP, Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP — to agree unanimously to a three-year Budget would have been unimaginable a year ago. It is a positive Budget for Northern Ireland, and it marks a distinct departure from direct rule.
I particularly welcome the continuing focus on growing a vibrant and dynamic economy for Northern Ireland — our number one priority. However, having that as our number one priority does not mean that investment in public services is not required. In the Budget, there will be more than £4 billion worth of spending a year on health, an additional £400 million a year for education, and ambitious public capital investment in infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, public transport and other public services, to the tune of some £2 billion a year. That is significant, and it is needed to help achieve the goal of growing Northern Ireland’s economy.
Freezing the domestic regional rate, capping the industrial rate, and the clear focus in the Budget on much-needed efficiencies and on performance are recognition that the people of Northern Ireland have paid enough and have not received the outputs that their inputs have deserved.
However, in spite of all of those positives, and I could mention many more, there are doom merchants, naysayers and nit-pickers who have pored over the document and have suddenly — compared to others who have been consistently opposed to it — become eleventh-hour converts to opposing the Budget. I refer, of course, to the SDLP.
It is worth remembering that as far as the current Budget process is concerned, all Ministers must agree to every aspect of the Budget. It is not sufficient for Ministers to agree only to their individual departmental allocations — obviously, they will have a particular interest in those. Ministers must agree to every single piece of the Budget, every line, every pound and every penny.
Serious questions have to be posed about what has been written in the press and what has been said in the Chamber today. First, is the SDLP riven with division? Did Margaret Ritchie defy her party’s directions? Did she fail to deliver on what her party asked her to achieve in the Executive? Those questions need to be asked, especially given that the Minister of Finance and Personnel has said that Minister Ritchie proposed no amendments to the draft Budget.
The only other possibility, which is much more serious, is that Margaret Ritchie’s approval of the Budget in the Executive — and her likely endorsement of it this evening, if she wants to remain in office — was deliberately dishonourable. That is the serious issue that she has to address.
I look forward to seeing her in the Lobby later — I am sure that I will. However, her party colleagues who will trot through the other Lobby at the same time will be holding what is tantamount to a vote of no confidence in her ability. That is an issue that she needs to seriously reflect on, and she should watch her back. Perhaps she needs to get her retaliation in first. I am not sure what the SDLP’s role is — its Minister will be voting for a Budget that her Assembly colleagues will be voting against. Perhaps its role will evolve over the course of the day.
I do know what the Alliance Party’s role is. However, they are not effective in fulfilling it.
Mr Ford: Is that the best you can manage, Simon?
Mr Hamilton: I am just starting, David. In all seriousness, I find it curious that a party, which for decades piously pronounced that it was time for people to get together and work together for the betterment of Northern Ireland, is now taking such a position. In many ways, it is opposing its raison d’être; it is opposing what it has been proposing for years.
Alliance Party Members may think that they are the tough guys and that they are talking tough; however, I honestly do not think that their supporters will appreciate what the party is doing, especially given what it has been selling them through the years. [Interruption.]
I hope that it is not because of anything that I said.
The cost-of-division argument has been wheeled out as the main fiscal argument once again. However, the Alliance Party has another argument, which I will address later. It knows that its alternative is unrealistic. The Alliance Party’s arguments on the cost of division have been derided by UNISON — which has been no friend of the Minister of Finance during the consultation on the draft Budget — and in its submission on the draft Budget those arguments have been called “delusions”.
It is important to examine the matters that are included in ‘The Cost of Division — A Shared Future Strategy’, and I would love to be able to click my fingers and make the actual cost of division disappear overnight. The maximum potential figure of £1·5 billion that is cited in the report includes various costs, such as responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Office and aspects of security, which would not automatically come back to the Assembly in any case. I heard your contribution to the Programme for Government debate yesterday, Mr Deputy Speaker, when you excoriated the Alliance Party quite effectively on that point.
The report also included the funding of the Historical Enquiries Team, and the Alliance Party must be asked whether it would like to see that body disappear.
Dr Farry: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it appropriate for a Member to refer to comments that were made by the Deputy Speaker when he was speaking from the Benches as a private Member, and then refer to him as the Deputy Speaker during a subsequent debate?
Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not relevant to today’s business, Dr Farry.
Mr Hamilton: You are very wise, Mr Deputy Speaker: two good comments in two days — you are on a roll.
The report also suggests that if bonfires were eliminated, we could save thousands of pounds every year. Perhaps the authors of the report do not attend many bonfires, because even if division in society ended, I suspect that bonfires would not disappear for ever. Perhaps we will have guys.
There are potentially quite significant savings to be made in education, but the Alliance Party, when presented with an opportunity in the House to vote against the Irish-medium club bank to stop the inappropriate further disintegration of education, voted for it. That will further entrench division in our education system.
The Alliance Party is not a one-trick pony any more — it now has two tricks on fiscal matters. The Alliance Party is telling the people, the households and the businesses of Northern Ireland that it wants to see their taxes rise, and, if it has its way, they will rise significantly. Under the last five years of direct rule, the people of Northern Ireland faced a 60% domestic regional rate rise, including a 19% rise in one year.
The Alliance Party characterised this as a low-tax Budget. That is a label that the DUP and I would be very happy to pick up and wear with immense pride. After enduring years of double-digit rate rises, the people have made a large enough contribution, and it is time for them to receive the performance that they deserve. A Budget that will freeze the domestic regional rate, effect an 8% cut over the three-year period and cap the industrial rate is to be welcomed, not criticised. A Budget that means that the average household in Northern Ireland will be around £1,000 better off over the three-year period, compared to direct rule, is best for Northern Ireland.
The Alliance Party has bashed householders and manufacturers, and has now turned its attention to bashing farmers. I wonder when they are going to bash little old ladies, because it seems that no one is immune when it comes to from whom the Alliance Party will take taxes. The Alliance Party is in opposition, the job of which is to propose attractive policies so that people will vote for them. If that is the type of policy that the Alliance Party believes people are going to vote for, it may as well get used to its role, because it will be in it for a very long time.
This Budget marks a significant change for Northern Ireland, and it represents a move in the right direction. The agreement of a unanimous Budget is to be wholeheartedly welcomed by everyone in the House. I give it my support, and I look forward to seeing the now-departed Minister for Social Development supporting it too.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Thankfully, she has departed only temporarily.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the debate on the Budget and the opportunity to take part in it. One of the most positive elements of the Budget is that local, accountable political representatives are setting the priorities and Budget allocations, rather than direct rule Ministers.
The Budget is by no means perfect, but it is a first step in delivering real change to the people living in the North of Ireland.
The fact that there is such a high level of public interest in the draft Budget, which was shown by the number of people who responded to the consultation process, indicates that people have high expectations of local political representatives to deliver the changes necessary to make our quality of life better.
It is important to build a dynamic, innovative economy, but it is equally important to ensure that poverty, disadvantage and inequality are addressed. The economy in the North of Ireland is characterised by unacceptable and unsustainable levels of poverty that expose the extent of discrimination and disadvantage in our society. Some 31% of 16- to 60-year-olds lack paid work; 22% of the workforce is low paid; and nearly 25% of households are unable to afford adequate home heating. Nearly 100,000 children and 50,000 pensioners are living in income poverty, and 3,000 people die prematurely each year as a result of disadvantage and poverty.
In the past, we have had no control over our resources, which has resulted in an economy with patterns that have, year after year, produced alarming evidence of intensifying inequality and disadvantage.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Ms J McCann: No.
We must correct the huge infrastructure deficit resulting from successive failures to invest in essential services, such as water, the sewerage system, transport, hospitals and education. It is our commitment to address discrimination and disadvantage that is at the very source of our opportunity to overcome what is morally and economically unsustainable. For example, by looking at how all public procurement expenditure can integrate economic and social requirements, along with ring-fencing projects that directly impact on discrimination and poverty, ways can be found that can begin to challenge those patterns of disadvantage.
There is a huge budget for procurement, and we need to agree measures, such as local labour, clauses that will ensure that procurement meets equality conditions. For example, companies that receive contracts should meet base conditions, which would include good wages and employment of apprenticeships, and thus they would contribute to local economic welfare and growth.
Unfortunately, the British Government have ignored repeated cross-party representations to make special provision for the North of Ireland as a society emerging from conflict, with all the social and economic disadvantages that that brings. Instead, we are faced with an unfair Barnett settlement — the outworking of which can be seen in the draft Budget — and a drive to privatise public services.
The block grant from the British Government is inadequate and does not allow the Executive to challenge fully the years of underinvestment by successive British Governments. Notwithstanding the context of that financial shortfall, as well as the absence of a developed all-Ireland economy, until we have control over our own fiscal powers, we will continue to carry the burden of trying to match limited resources with increasing needs.
There are, of course, several areas where it will be necessary to examine and to continue to lobby for resources in different Departments.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Ms J McCann: No.
Public service provision under PFI is an area that needs to be examined and its shortfalls challenged. PFI and PPP contracts require public bodies to enter into long-term contracts that involve them borrowing money at a higher rate of interest than normal. Government can borrow at a lower interest rate than the private sector. Therefore, PFI and PPP contracts —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Members, please allow the Member to continue.
Ms J McCann: Therefore, PFI and PPP contracts can cost the taxpayer more in the longer term.
The social economy is another area that deserves special recognition. We must recognise the important and significant contribution of such local economic activity, which promotes social objectives and sustainable community development. That industry has already created sustainable jobs. The development of the social economy should be actively promoted by the Assembly and the Executive.
The community and voluntary sector has been starved of core funding. An ongoing lobbying process must take place to ensure specific Departments allocate the resources necessary to core fund those front-line services delivered through the community and voluntary sector.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Ms J McCann: No.
Moneys could be ring-fenced, particularly in the Department for Social Development. Many services, including the Youth Service, are due to finish in March and June of this year. Many are losing Peace II funding, with no alternative measures in place to sustain their projects, even though they have been central to delivering opportunities for community training and development, education, promotion of good relations, and initiatives for children and young people.
The Department for Social Development must be creative and imaginative in finding ways to retain the skills and expertise that have been acquired in that sector and that have helped to promote and sustain citizenship and peace. Many communities in west Belfast, other parts of the city and across the North of Ireland have serious concerns about the future of the community sector. Therefore, it is unacceptable that a report on the future of that sector, which argued for mainstream long-term funding for community organisations, has still not been acted upon, despite being presented to the Department for Social Development several years ago.
The revised Budget, alongside the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, should be a vehicle to empower communities through economic initiatives. Departments should commit to building social capital through funded, participative community-level initiatives that lead to sustainable economic projects, which would be beneficial to all in the community.
I am disappointed that the Budget does not mention women as a specific group that faces inequality and discrimination. I expected the Budget to reflect the commitment, which the Executive made in the Programme for Government, to tackling the remaining gender inequalities in society. That commitment was written into the Programme for Government at Sinn Féin’s insistence, and I intend to ensure that all Departments honour it.
In the Programme for Government, the Executive make a commitment to implementing the cross-departmental gender-equality strategy and to work towards the total elimination of the gender pay gap. The Executive are also committed to developing effective programmes and strategies aimed at eradicating all forms of violence against women and to ensuring a significant increase in women’s participation in political and public life, which will be helped by ensuring that women have access to affordable, quality childcare.
Although all those gains in the Programme for Government are welcome, it is important that financial support and resources are made available to deliver on those commitments. Sinn Féin intends to use the agreed mechanisms for delivering equality, including the equality impact assessment process.
In conclusion, as I said at the outset, the fact that local political representatives, rather than direct rule Ministers, have set the priorities and Budget allocations that will affect local people’s lives for the next few years must be seen as a positive step forward. It is a positive first step, but much more work must be done to ensure that inequality, discrimination and disadvantage are rigorously challenged and tackled. All people in the North of Ireland are entitled to a much better quality of life. It is the responsibility of local representatives, along with others, to ensure that that is delivered. We must take the process forward, because people are expecting their local politicians to deliver. There is much goodwill out there, but people expect a lot from us. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I commend the Member for Upper Bann Mrs Kelly for taking rejection very well.
Mr Weir: Like Ms McCann, I support the Budget. However, unlike her, I might manage to make some positive comments about it to justify my going through the Lobbies. I look forward to seeing Ms McCann, and others, in the Lobbies tonight in support of the four-party Budget that the Executive approved unanimously.
The Budget marks an important departure for Northern Ireland in three crucial respects. It stands in sharp contrast to the direct rule Budgets that were imposed upon us in the past. First, the draft Budget went out to consultation, and today we see the finished product. As local politicians, we are used to seeing the Government consulting on various proposals. Responses and strenuous arguments for changes might be made, but they always seemed to fall on deaf ears. As the revised Budget shows, the Executive have been listening, and they have considered genuine concerns and met genuine pressures without diverting the Budget from its central purpose. The Executive have shown flexibility, while retaining the Budget’s strength.
Many words of praise have been heaped upon the Minister of Finance and Personnel for organising the Budget and the consultation process. However, praise must also go to the hard-working special adviser and officials in the Department who successfully aided the Minister in producing that excellent work.
I highlighted three areas where a departure from the past was merited. The second of those is the opportunity to be responsive and listen.
The economy is at the heart of the Budget, in both the draft and the final versions. Here is a challenge to all of us to shift away from our mindset. In the past, the tendency has been to concentrate on how the cake has been carved up. When we were faced with problems, we asked for more cake. Ultimately, however, the long-term economic success of Northern Ireland will be based on a strong economy. The Budget shows the way. In achieving that strong economy, it is not a question of redressing the balance between the public and private sectors by reducing the size of the public sector. Examination of the Budget shows record levels of commitment to the public sector. For example, the vast growth of the allocation to the Health Service and the additional money for social housing that has been found in the final Budget will make a major contribution to society. It is not so much reducing the public sector that is vital, but creating economic conditions that make for growth in the private sector. The Alliance Party has thrown at us the accusation that we have been trying to create a low-tax economy that will allow the private sector to flourish. That is a badge of honour that I am happy to wear.
Consider the regional rate. We have seen massive increases, driven, in part, by the agreement on the reinvestment and reform initiative. That meant that taxpayers and ratepayers in Northern Ireland have, in recent years, been bled dry. Now, however, the domestic regional rate has been frozen for the next three years; and the business rate will be kept in line with inflation. The Executive have responded to requests from the manufacturing sector to hold down the level of derating, which will give a much-needed boost to our economy.
The third area in which there has been a departure from past practice, is one on which the focus will fall in the future. The Budget concentrates, not simply on the levels of allocation given to various Departments, but — as was shown in the Minister’s statement last week — on delivery. Northern Ireland’s citizens will expect that. That is what matters to people: not that we have a more expensive system, or that we have one that is better-funded, but that delivery makes a difference to their day-to-day lives.
Mr Gallagher: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that, in future, local government will have an important part to play in service delivery? Since local government and central Government have co-operated in preparing the modernisation agenda, does the Member agree that it is disappointing that no money has been identified in the Budget for the next three years for taking that forward?
Mr Weir: Money will be made available for modernisation. It is hoped that, in the near future, the Executive will make decisions on the review of public administration. Matters will flow from that. The Budget has been put in place for the next three years; there needs to be modernisation of local government, and that requires investment. However, the sums required can be dealt with through in-year monitoring, and focused on activities that will be of benefit.
There must be much greater co-operation between local government and central Government to ensure that there is proper delivery. All Members can point to parts of the Province where, in the past, Government buildings, one after another, have been put side-by-side and there has been no efficiency of delivery. However, the Budget concentrates on delivery. Performance and efficiency delivery units (PEDU) will lead to savings.
Indeed, it is hoped that the pressure on Departments to generate efficiency savings of 3% will result in resources being targeted to where they are most needed — the front-line delivery of services. Therefore, there is much to commend in the Budget.
Through its amendment, the Alliance Party has taken a rather predictable path. It maintains that recovering the cost of division is the silver bullet that will cure all social ills — it is as though a wave of that magic wand will produce immediate savings. I am reminded of the idea that the Liberal Democrats had in the 1980s of increasing income tax by 1p. The plan was that, as time went by, that increase would pay for more and more services. It seems that some think that finding an immediate cure to the cost of division is the magic solution to every social ill.
I look forward to the Supplementary Estimates, when the Alliance Party will actually put some meat on the bones of its proposals and make suggestions. If money is to be diverted to other activities, let us hear where that party wants to make changes, what schools it wants to close and what roads it does not want to be built. Let us hear what concrete proposals it is prepared to make.
Although the Alliance Party is wrong in its assertion that recovering the cost of division is the magic solution, at least it deserves credit for its consistency. It might be consistently wrong, but at least it is consistent. Indeed, the party has sounded like a stuck record throughout the lifetime of this Assembly.
However, at least there is a little bit of logic in its position, unlike that of the party opposite, the SDLP, whose Minister agreed with the Budget. Not only did she agree with the elements of the Budget that affect her Department, she agreed with the Budget in its entirety. Like a family pet that is adopted at Christmas and abandoned on Boxing Day once the children are tired playing with it, Margaret Ritchie has been abandoned by the Members opposite. She will cut a lonely figure when she walks through the Aye Lobby.
It is clear that the SDLP is playing games with the Budget. It is trying to have its cake and eat it. It is trying to be part of the Government, trying to claim whatever successes emerge from the Budget, particularly those that emerge from the Department for Social Development, while saying “nothing to do with me, guv”, as though it had nothing to do with the Budget. In fact, the SDLP has demonstrated political immaturity on the issue. It has pretended, Pontius Pilate-like, to wash its hands of the Budget while allowing its own Minister to traipse through the Aye Lobby in its favour. That shows that its stance is fundamentally flawed.
The people of Northern Ireland will welcome the Budget. It is a Budget for business and economic growth, and it will deliver for everyone.
Mr Beggs: I am amazed at the Alliance Party’s amendment, which calls for a revised programme of expenditure to be developed at this late stage. The amendment does not even mention specific financial amendments that ought to be made to the Budget.
There seems to be a complete lack of understanding about how late the Budget is already. It is normally completed in December, but it has been delayed until January because of the comprehensive spending review. It must be understood that the process involves not just finalising departmental budgets. For example, once the education budget has been finalised, the Department of Education must cascade its allocation to the various boards. When will schools find out how much money they are getting? It takes time for money to be cascaded down through Departments. Therefore, there are dangers in delaying a final judgement on the Budget.
If the Alliance Party is dissatisfied with issues in the Budget, why did it not propose specific amendments that could have been debated? Is it merely copying the DUP of old by tabling token amendments just so that it can vote against the Budget? Some people might call that grandstanding.
The Ulster Unionist Party contributed to the draft Budget by giving constructive criticism and by seeking further information. The Finance Minister and me have been involved in some toing and froing on the lack of evidence of a financial package. The contentious nature of the Budget shows that it is obvious that there is little evidence of a £1 billion financial package. The Assembly was promised that the outcomes of the Varney Review would boost Northern Ireland’s economic prospects. However, Varney I failed to deliver anything of note, and that has spawned Varney II.
Earlier, Mitchel McLaughlin criticised the achievements of David Trimble and Mark Durkan during their engagements with the Treasury. However, they gained access to reinvestment and reform initiative funding, and many valuable former army bases were to be given to Northern Ireland’s Executive to benefit the local economy. By comparison, the “Chuckle Brothers” seem to have gained little from their solo visit to London.
I wish to return to some other remaining areas of concern.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Mr Beggs: Yes.
Mrs D Kelly: Success — it just goes to show that one should try, try and try again. I thank the Member for giving way. Will he agree that it was the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP who set up the Strategic Investment Board — a point that has been forgotten by the DUP and Sinn Féin? They voted against having the board; yet it now forms the core of their economic development and investment strategies.
Mr Beggs: It is amazing how some parties can do speedy U-turns when they realise their errors.
There is no agreed method for water charging and for ensuring affordability, and I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Minister for Regional Development to state why it is taking so long to formulate detailed financial proposals on what is facing the people. Budget proposals will impact on water charging, and it is disappointing that, nine months after devolution, no firm proposals are available. Clearly, those who are responsible for finance and water must answer for that.
Although I accept that the Northern Ireland public has been paying for water through the rating system, and will continue to pay for water, I would like to make it clear that the Ulster Unionist Party does not support water payments that will be based solely on the value of houses. Aside from the inequality of such a proposal, it also fails to address the EU water framework directive, which requires water conservation measures to result from the charging mechanism.
Northern Ireland Water and the water regulator have expressed concerns about the achievability of the 40% efficiency target, and I understand that it has been reduced to 35%. Is the target achievable in the short term? What will happen if it is not achieved?
Much of the capital investment discussed in the Assembly concerns releasing existing capital and reinvesting it, and more work needs to be done in that area. However, the Assembly is still blind as far as the report that was passed to the Minister of Finance and Personnel in December is concerned. As that report will have major implications for capital funding proposals, when will it be published, and why has it been withheld prior to the debate on the Budget? When will the assets be sold, and will they reach their true value?
Significant sums of money are contained in the Budget to redevelop land formerly used by the Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Defence and to assist in improving sporting infrastructure prior to the 2012 Olympic Games. I hope to see the full business case for the proposed stadium at the Maze soon, and I hope that details have not been withheld deliberately so as to enable funding to be included in the Budget.
Mr S Wilson: This is a totally new revelation from the Ulster Unionist Party. Did the Member say that he was looking for forward to seeing the business case for a stadium at the Maze? Is this one of the Ulster Unionist Party’s new policies?
Mr Beggs: Would the Member allow me to finish my point? I urge that full infrastructure costs are included in such a business case because there is potential for much folly in talking solely about a stadium. It is important that the full implications of creating an efficient transport system to, and from, such a stadium are included. I suspect that when that is done, it will put a huge question mark over the proposals.
Significant capital underfunding has resulted from delays in the planning system in Northern Ireland. Will that continue to happen, or will it be possible to ensure a six-month turnaround of capital investment proposals to ensure that we, in turn, will not incur underspending and mismanagement of public funding?
I share the views that Declan O’Loan expressed on domestic rates. The Finance Minister claims that the Budget will make households in Northern Ireland £1,000 better off. On 23 January 2008, in ‘The Irish News’, Graeme Harrison, a leading economist with Oxford Economics, challenged that claim. He said that it was difficult to pin down:
“exactly how civil servants arrived at their figure of £1,000”.
Householders will not feel better off by £1,000 when they experience the full cost of water bills, the charges of which are lined up for significant increases in future years. We would be better off without the spin.
During the run-up to the Budget, I asked a number of written and oral questions to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on departmental funding and North/South bodies. One question has not been answered and remains of concern to me: what is the purpose of the huge increase in funding under the heading of “Support for Government and other services”? In 2001-02, £9·273 million was allocated under that heading, and in 2006-07, that allocation was £13·529 million. In the Budget for 2007-08, the NIO conveniently increased that figure by 40% to £18·93 million, which is more than double the amount that was allocated during the last period of devolution. I continue to seek further information on that matter, and I will continue to monitor that situation and to seek an assurance that money is being well spent — but I have considerable concerns that it is not.
In the past, the DUP has conveniently used paltry sums — for example, its removal of approximately £1 million from funding for North/South bodies — to justify an amendment and to vote against a Budget as a grandstanding, spoiling mechanism. Along with my Ulster Unionist colleagues, I do not wish to adopt a spoiling mechanism, although we could justifiably do so. We do not want to spoil, but we will continue to monitor and question expenditure.
We accept that we have a role to play in giving stability to the critical Budget process, and, therefore, to the stability of Northern Ireland, which will enable economic progress. We would not be thanked if, during the run-up to the economic conference that is planned for May 2008, we were to expose Northern Ireland as fragile. Therefore, it is important that we all take difficult decisions. From that point of view, I support the Budget.
Mr P Ramsey: It is a pity that Peter Weir and Simon Hamilton are not in the Chamber, but in response to their comments, I point out that the SDLP has made no eleventh-hour conversion on its position on the Budget or Programme for Government. We have been clear about the need for a consistent, constructive and responsible approach in the Chamber, outside the Chamber, and at Committee level. The SDLP amendment highlights the areas of the Budget that we are concerned about. We will not be censored or silenced, and we will certainly not be bullied into submission by any other party. We are a democratic party, and we have the right to raise issues that are of concern to us.
As the SDLP spokesperson on culture, arts and leisure, I will focus on sport and the arts. The SDLP places a high value on sport at individual, community, regional, national and international levels. Sport contributes to the physical and mental health of people and communities; it helps to build community cohesion and esteem; it helps to build regional and national recognition and reputation; and, internationally, it has an ambassadorial role to play through sports people, teams and supporters. When those factors are considered, the benefits of sport represent a strong return on the investment that is made.
The SDLP also recognises the immense contribution that volunteers make to sporting and community bodies across Northern Ireland.
Sport probably attracts more voluntary effort than any other sector, and that effort provides immense added value to Government spending. We are concerned that sport has not been allocated the necessary funding. The investment strategy for Northern Ireland states that the Executive:
“will invest in a range of new, and improved sports facilities to a standard comparable with other similar UK regions, providing world class facilities and places for playing and watching sport that are accessible to all.”
That worthy aim will prove difficult, given the capital allocation to sport over the next three years. The SDLP is concerned that sport will be under-resourced in capital and revenue allocations. That will have a negative impact on our ability to implement the draft strategy for sport and physical recreation, which went out to public consultation in October 2007. The Government will be unable to deliver the stadia safety programme, and the ability to deliver 10 Olympic centres of excellence will also be seriously jeopardised. No money will be made available from central Government to build community sports facilities, and there will be no money for local rugby, soccer or Gaelic football clubs. Although officials from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure tell us that if the Maze project goes ahead, the Department of Finance and Personnel will receive £80 million, some of which may be ploughed back into sport, that is a nonsense.
The draft sports strategy is wide-ranging, covering sport from community to international level. Although many groups are critical of aspects of the strategy, there is no doubt that its scale and potential benefits are ambitious. The capital that is required to deliver the strategy from 2008-2011 is £260 million. Those are not my figures. Only £112 million is allocated in the Budget, leaving a shortfall of more than 50%. The draft sports strategy requires revenue funding of £101 million, but the Budget allocates £34 million, which amounts to a shortfall of almost 70%.
There are serious concerns about the ability to deliver on important areas of the draft sports strategy, such as the sports stadiums safety programme, Olympic centres of excellence and community facilities. Over the past seven years, the stadia safety programme has delivered health and safety improvements at major sports grounds across Northern Ireland. The Budget makes no provision whatsoever for a continued programme of investment in our major sports grounds. Whether those grounds be Windsor Park or Derry City’s Brandywell Stadium, there is no money in the Budget for them.
The Scott Report of 1997 established that investment of £30 million was required in order to bring our sports grounds up to standard. Inflation and increased standards have now overtaken that figure, but, to date, the Government have only invested £6·3 million, through Sport Northern Ireland.
As a result of historical failures of Government to invest properly in sports grounds and the absence of funding in the Budget, grounds will fail to meet the standards that The Safety of Sports Grounds (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and the Green Guide imposed. In order to comply with statutory health and safety requirements, grounds will be forced to reduce greatly their capacity, and, in other instances, they may have to close down. That will have obvious implications for Northern Ireland’s ability to market itself as a region of sporting excellence. It will limit our ability to host international sporting events, including our ability to host football matches during the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Under direct rule, £53 million was set aside for centres of excellence in the elite facilities programme. That programme is intended to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from, and contributes to, the legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. A target was set to attract 10 international teams to Northern Ireland for acclimatisation and pre-Games training. That will involve building 10 new, world-class sporting facilities and attracting world-class coaches and other sports-related specialists to Northern Ireland. However, the Budget reduces that commitment from £53 million to £35 million, and, out of that £35 million, £15 million has been committed to the provision of a 50-metre swimming pool in north Down. That leaves only £20 million to build the other 10 centres.
From my discussions with Sport Northern Ireland, I understand that there will be no money available for the construction of community facilities between 2008 and 2011. If new or improved facilities are to be made available locally, they will have to be built by the local authorities, and the increased pressures on ratepayers will be significant.
The Budget’s allocation to sport falls short of the requirements of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s draft sport strategy. That will have a number of negative effects. We will not achieve the target participation levels in sport across the demographic groups and will, therefore, miss opportunities to improve health and well-being and to target social need at individual and community level. The people of Northern Ireland will fail to achieve the potential sports legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games. Furthermore, the international competitiveness of Northern Ireland athletes will be disadvantaged.
The Minister will be aware that, during the consultation process on the draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget, almost 50% of those who contributed talked about the lack of money, funding and leadership in the arts and sports fraternities. The allocation of £1·5 million to the arts is a minimal approach.
It is an indictment of historical governance that the arts have fallen so far behind, compared to other regions. The arts are considered important in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. They contribute to a region’s attractiveness as a place to invest, and they contribute significantly and directly to the economy through many creative industries and product design. That is why Governments in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland spend twice as much per capita on the arts as we do. When will we invest properly in our historical and excellent culture? Why are we not doing so already? We know what investment is required, so why are we not investing in our own people and heritage, as other regions are doing?
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland said that for an extra £10 million pounds a year, it could raise spending to a level similar to that of the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. For that sum, the Arts Council could have levered in additional millions of pounds and put the region on the map. There was an opportunity to deliver that in the Programme for Government. It has not happened in this Budget — we are still the poor relation, and our performance will continue to be substandard and second-class. It is not too late to change that situation, and I hope that in his review — whatever its duration might be — the Minister will decide to make the required and proper investment in all communities.
Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat. Although there has been support from most of the parties for the Budget and the departmental increases that the Executive has endorsed, Members must keep their feet firmly on the ground. While the revised Budget appears to have delivered the resources required for most Departments, it once again highlights the serious deficiencies in the infrastructure inherited from direct rule Ministers and shows up the underinvestment that existed for many years.
Serious problems have been stored up for us in the area of housing. In every survey that has been carried out on these islands, housing has featured as one of the top three issues of major concern. The serious problems in the housing sector are not a new phenomenon; they have been with us for many years. The lack of investment or any type of strategy to tackle the housing crisis is an indictment of those direct rule Ministers who held the relevant portfolio over the years.
Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?
Mr F McCann: No, I have not got enough time.
The housing crisis is real, and it affects everyone, from the very young to the very old: those who have been priced out of ever owning a home because the market was speculator-led, which put the price of houses well out of their reach, and those who have been on housing waiting lists for years with no hope of getting a house because not enough social houses were being built. I am glad that the argument about the Budget is coming to an end, because it is hiding a real question about housing: how will we end the housing crisis? What strategy will be brought before the Assembly that will lead us out of the nightmare?
Although the Minister of Finance has said that there will be increases in the Budget for the Department for Social Development to allow the building of 1,500, 1,750 and 2,000 new, welcome, social houses over the lifetime of the Budget, there is still a gap between what is required to deal with the housing crisis and what is detailed in the Budget.
If we are to make a difference to — and an impact on — the ever-growing waiting list, at least £200 million a year will be required for the foreseeable future. However, that does not necessarily mean money from the Department of Finance. In fact, the way is now clear for the Minister for Social Development to tell Members what she will do. For months, she has hidden behind the Budget and accused her Executive colleagues of not giving her the necessary money. She cannot hide behind that excuse any longer, but must explain how she will spend her departmental budget, in addition to providing the House with information about the further measures that she will bring to the table. There can now be no excuse for not producing an effective strategy to provide the required housing. For months, we have listened to the Minister telling us how, given the money, she would deal with the housing crisis.
Mrs M Bradley: Will the Member give way?
Mr F McCann: No. She has been given the money — let us see what she can deliver. Sinn Féin’s, the DUP’s and other parties’ Ministers — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker, is there any chance of some order?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr F McCann: By providing the required finance, Sinn Féin, DUP and other parties’ Ministers have delivered on their promises to prioritise housing, and Margaret Ritchie signed off on that commitment. We await the result of that commitment in the form of her action plan.
Members must remember that 21,000 people a year declare themselves homeless, and that rate has been growing each year. The stark reality of the problem is that the waiting list stands at upwards of 36,000 people.
Housing shortages are cross-cutting and impact on every aspect of people’s lives. Being homeless can affect people’s mental well-being, their employment prospects and their — and their children’s — education attainment. Having a home allows one to grow as a person and gives one the dignity and confidence to build for the future.
Across the state, Members can see the legacy of previous Administrations and the extent of the job that must be done. Department for Social Development housing statistics from 2002-03 to 2006-07 show that 10,832 people have faced actions to repossess their houses because of mortgage arrears.
For the past several years, the social-housing new-build programme has had little impact throughout the North. Between 2004-05 and 2006-07, six new social houses were built in Omagh; three were built in Magherafelt; none in Ballymoney; one in Limavady; none in Moyle; 27 in Strabane; and five in Cookstown. Those are some of the shocking statistics that illustrate the housing mess that we are in.
Members must ask how they can make a difference for the person who is sleeping on the street because he or she has nowhere to go; for people who have been in hostels for years because too few houses are being built; for people in private-rental accommodation that is unsuitable for their needs and who are paying over the odds; for young people who cannot afford to get a mortgage; or for couples whose mortgage payment accounts for two thirds of their monthly income. Those are the realities that the Assembly must face, but what is the solution?
All Members share the responsibility of bringing our people out of that crisis, and that is why it is crucial that the Minister for Social Development brings her strategy to the table. We must know what has been done in the eight months since she took office. What are the results and recommendations from the review group’s deliberations?
We argued that article 40 of The Planning Order 1991 should have been tackled first and should have been a key element in providing a steady flow of social and affordable houses. Is the Co-ownership Housing Association to be the only option in the affordable-housing sector, or will the Minister take on board the necessity of broadening the sector in order to allow different approaches for different situations?
In the provision of social-rented houses, can we expect, as has been suggested, a wider remit for the private-rental sector — an uncontrolled sector with few real restrictions on how business is conducted, and which is paid huge amounts of money by the Government? Has the Minister approached the construction industry to ascertain how it can deliver, as it did in England? The benefits are twofold — the Assembly invests huge sums of money in various projects, and the bartering of land for houses has been widely used. It will be interesting to see what the Minister has done to encourage that industry to be a partner in the provision of social and affordable housing.
That would also give a much-needed lift to the wider community through the creation of new jobs in a renewed construction sector.
In her press statement yesterday, the Minister said that the Budget is much better than the original; it is better for those on waiting lists, the homeless and those who want to reach the first rung on the ladder. The time for talking is over — let us see what the Minister can deliver. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr S Wilson: In case anyone interrupts me during my speech, I want to make it clear that I am not speaking as the Chairperson of the Education Committee. I intend to be totally partisan and party political and to address some of the issues that the Alliance Party and SDLP have raised.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr S Wilson: To avoid any unnecessary points of order or interruptions, I want to make that clear from the start. The amendments — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, order.
Mr Dallat: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. How will Members know if Mr Sammy Wilson is being partisan?
Mr S Wilson: The Member will find out in a minute or two. [Laughter.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, order.
Mr McElduff: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is the Member minded to give way if an interesting point arises during his remarks?
Mr S Wilson: Provided that time is added on, I am happy to give way. Members will welcome that. I will examine the Alliance Party amendment first. Members are used to regarding the Alliance Party as the eccentric party, which almost invites people to poke fun at it. However, Dr Farry excelled himself today; when it comes to establishing the Alliance Party’s role as a haven for political crackpots or to developing the art of kamikaze politics, he has done his party proud. Let us look at the Alliance Party’s policies for Northern Ireland.
Mr Cobain: Why does the Member look at me when he says that?
Mr S Wilson: The Member is getting very close to the Alliance Party. Dr Farry lamented that the Budget is a low-tax one — the message to taxpayers in Northern Ireland is that, if they vote for the Alliance Party, they will have their pockets picked through more tax. That is a great policy, and the electorate will be very happy to vote on it at the next election. Dr Farry even took on the CBI; although the CBI called for a reduction in business rates and provided good justification for that, he says that it is the wrong direction to go in. Dr Farry says the Government should tax people and spend more.
The next remark, which the leader of the Alliance Party may not have heard, was that farmers get too much — farmers in South Antrim will not be pleased to hear that. All I ever hear is that farmers do not get enough, and that they have a hard time. Those are the type of groups that the Alliance Party will appeal to. The Alliance Party wants to get its hands deeper into taxpayers’ pockets and cut the Budget allocation to farmers. Its representatives then have the cheek to say that they want to spend more money in 15 areas such as health, the arts, sport, public transport and the environment. However, they do not want any assets to be sold to facilitate that. The Assembly does not have any tax-raising powers, and Mr Ford may want to address that later. Perhaps he wants income tax powers here, as well. To finance that spending wish list without selling assets, we will have to dip into ratepayers’ pockets.
Members have had only a 10-minute glimpse of the Alliance Party’s economic strategy. After hearing from the both the Alliance Party and the Minister of Finance and Personnel, I guarantee that the voters of Northern Ireland have not been left with much of a choice.
It will be very easy to see which Budget the electorate will vote for — and it will not be for Alliance voodoo economics, but for the real compromises that have been found in the Budget process by the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
I now move to the SDLP amendment. It is clear that the SDLP is embarrassed about its stance. When I have done wrong by somebody, it is usually by damning them with faint praise. I notice that when the Member for North Antrim Mr O’Loan was making his speech, he did the same by making six references to the great job that Margaret Ritchie had done — before adding, as an afterthought, that he was going to vote against everything that she had talked about, agreed, and voted for in the Budget process. The SDLP did the same to her yesterday.
I went through the Lobby with the Minister last night, and she looked rather forlorn. I could have been wrong, but I thought that I heard her mournfully humming the tune to the words, “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman”. I have to say that given the type of leader she has, it must be very hard. She was rather more cheerful this morning, mind you — she must have been singing that Cliff Richard song, “We Don’t Talk Anymore” as she was walking down the corridors.
I heard the SDLP leader defending the Minister on the radio this morning, and I was wondering whether he should be called “Brutus” Durkan rather than Mark Durkan because it did not seem to be much of a defence. Yesterday, the SDLP praised the Minister but lamented that there was not enough money for social enterprise and voluntary groups. Most of the finance for that comes from the Department for Social Development, therefore the Minister must not have fought hard enough for funding. I know that the SDLP has to find some excuse, now that it has decided to be in Government and in opposition. However, today its amendment talks about there being no budgetary line for key policy developments including an anti-poverty strategy.
The leader of the SDLP, who has also been Minister of Finance and Personnel, knows full well that one cannot have a budgetary line relating to an anti-poverty strategy because such a strategy embraces a number of Departments. It embraces the Department for Social Development, as regards fuel poverty, the warm homes scheme, and the actions being taken on urban regeneration and in deprived areas. It also embraces the Department of Education as regards early-years provision and the extended schools programme. It embraces the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which is trying to get people back into work — surely the best way to get people out of poverty. It will embrace the Department for Employment and Learning, which is helping to train people who are finding it difficult to get work in order to get them on the route to a job. There is not going to be an anti-poverty line.
Mr Durkan: I do not see an anti-poverty strategy either.
Mr S Wilson: I hear the Member speaking from a sedentary position. The work will be cross-departmental. All of the things that I have mentioned are being financed by the Budget and have been included in the Programme for Government. It is a fairly weak and transparent argument to say that, just because one doesn’t see something, it must not exist. I do not think that that message has gotten across to the rest of the SDLP — and I do not want to embarrass the party’s education spokesman, who is sitting behind his leader.
Some Members: Go on.
Mr S Wilson: OK, I will.
SDLP Members lament that there has been an abandonment of cross-cutting funds for young people; for example, the children’s fund. That was a fund that one could delve into, and make funding applications for, and get money for programmes that lasted two or three years — and then when that time was over, the programmes fell flat, and there was no continuity.
In the Education Committee, the SDLP — [Interruption.]
I see that the Minister for Social Development has entered the Chamber — she must have heard me talking about her. Let me assure the Minister that I was saying nice things about her and upbraiding those cruel people who have abandoned her. I do not know whether she has her arms around her colleagues’ shoulders or around their necks. [Laughter.]
In the Education Committee, the SDLP supported other members of the Committee’s view that the kind of one-off funds for programmes that last two or three years and are then abandoned when they are just starting to work are not the best use of financial resources. It is better to mainstream much of that money, and that is exactly what the Budget seeks to do. Rather than using those other means of expenditure, the money is put into mainstream Departments so that they can plan, project and ensure continuity. For those reasons, I support the Budget and oppose the amendment.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Members, in case you are not quite sure, Mr Wilson was not speaking as Chairperson of the Committee for Education.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I notice that you did not give Sammy Wilson extra time for being entertaining, Mr Deputy Speaker. He needed it.
Sinn Féin supports the Budget and does not support the amendments. Our response to the Budget is not, and cannot be, made in isolation from the political and financial realities that confront the Executive and the Assembly. We welcomed the debate yesterday on the Programme for Government and the ISNI strategy, and the watchwords for all of the Executive’s policies have been, and will continue to be, “fairness”, “inclusion” and “equality”. Notwithstanding, there are a number of major obstacles to the progressive development and delivery by the Executive of a new social, economic and political reality.
At an overarching level, Sinn Féin believes that there must be a redistributive dynamic in the Executive’s financial and political policies that recognises that economic sovereignty, economic prosperity and economic equality are all linked. It is a collective responsibility. A united response from all the political parties to the economic realities and financial limitations that confront us will have much more effect on the national and international stage than narrow political posturing.
Sinn Féin has a number of concerns, but that will not stop it endorsing the Budget today. It will not support PFI/PPP arrangements in education and healthcare. Private partners can have no say in the management of schools and hospitals, and they have no power to affect levels of public-service provision. All employees of PFI/PPP projects should be retained in the public sector and civil servants instructed to find appropriate ways of achieving that — for example, by defining them as “clinical staff”. All PFI/PPP contractors must comply fully with the legislation and promote equality. Sinn Féin has insisted on the fullest and deepest application of the section 75 equality duty by the Executive in relation to any of those projects.
Currently, the community and voluntary sector is starved of funding. That difficulty is exacerbated by many groups having to wait on decisions about Peace III funding, with no alternative measures to sustain their projects, even though those have been central to delivering opportunities for community health programmes, training and development, education, an the promotion of good relations and initiatives for children and young people.
The ongoing grief and trauma experienced by survivors and victims of political violence must be recognised and resourced on an equal and equitable basis. That is particularly important in relation to addressing the legacy of the conflict through inter- and intra-community initiatives. Yesterday, we heard about the funds that will be allocated to victims’ and survivors’ groups for services and support. That is most welcome. All members of the Executive must be imaginative and creative about resourcing and retaining the skills and expertise that have been acquired in the community and voluntary sector and that have helped to promote and sustain citizenship and peace. That contribution must not go unnoticed.
The health budget, in particular, has been the subject of much debate. As stated previously, we are faced with a number of financial realities and constraints. We highlighted that the health and social-care provision, which suffered from underinvestment for decades under successive British direct rule Administrations, must be challenged.
The Health Minister has challenges ahead, as do all Ministers. Those challenges must be met in a constructive and innovative manner in partnership with patients, health professionals and trade-union representatives.
I welcome the additional money that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will receive, particularly the priority given to additional resources by monitoring rounds.
Sinn Féin will support further investment in the Health Service throughout the lifetime of the Executive. Such investment must target front-line services, including community and primary-care services, and not just acute services.
The health profile of those in the North is a disgrace. Discrimination, poverty and social exclusion are the legacy of consecutive British direct rule Administrations.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Ms Ní Chuilín: No, I will not.
To bring an end to unacceptably poor health statistics, we must reach a balance in how we invest in, and deal with, ill health, and how we invest in the eradication of social and economic issues that cause so much ill health.
Mr Durkan: Go with the flow.
Ms Ní Chuilín: The long-term improvement in the population’s health can be achieved only by tackling the root causes of discrimination, poverty and social exclusion, and that must be done. Sinn Féin calls on all Departments to set about ensuring that investment for health becomes the cornerstone of their work. Failure to do so will condemn future generations to a continuing environment of ill health.
Health is an area of co-operation under the Good Friday Agreement. It is intended that all people should benefit, and that co-operation should be exploited to its maximum potential, especially in those communities that straddle the border.
There must be ongoing commitment in the Assembly and the Executive to delivering equality, above the European and domestic legal requirements, for those with disabilities.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Ms Ní Chuilín: No, the Member will not.
One in five people in the North has some form of disability, and one in four families is directly affected by disability. Sinn Féin will continue to demand equitable health service provision across the full range of services.
All areas of the health service are worthy of mention; however, we wish to emphasise a few. Sinn Féin supports the full implementation of the Bamford Review for Mental Health and Learning Difficulties. Sinn Féin has consistently called for proper funding for suicide awareness, alongside proper family and community support in those services.
It is time that the role of carers in our society was recognised, and Sinn Féin welcomes the action that has been taken; however, we must all do more. There is an urgent and compelling case for the development of North-West cross-border cancer care, and for a radiotherapy facility to be established in conjunction with the Department of Health and Children.
Sinn Féin will continue to engage with the various health sectors and, through membership of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, to demand delivery of those services.
Sinn Féin secured the commitment on language for equality, and, specifically, the commitment to allocate resources, which will now be based on the outcome of equality impact assessment.
Sinn Féin has written equality into the heart of not only the Programme for Government investment strategy but into the Budget. While others grandstand and play juvenile party politics, when they step away from the demands of political leadership, we have secured demands that can be seen in this and future Budgets. I support the motion.
Mr McQuillan: It is with great pleasure that I support the Budget. The last year was one of historic proportions, and the delivery of a Budget that targets Northern Ireland’s most important and historically underfunded sectors in receipt of public finances — and by a Northern Ireland Finance Minister — should not be underestimated.
Funding has always been, and always will be, required for public sector services, and, in Northern Ireland, the priorities were never fully recognised under direct rule. We now have tangible proof that locally elected politicians understand the people that they represent and their priorities. An extensive commitment to social housing; the freezing of the regional rate; new water mains and sewerage systems; funding to attract and encourage new business in Northern Ireland; 13 new trains and 200 new buses are only some of the priorities identified, and only some of what has been achieved in the eight months since devolution. What makes that more incredible is the fact that it has been achieved by a four-party Executive.
No Minister has been given all of the funding he or she desired. That will never happen, because the Executive pot has a bottom and, no matter how the Finance Minister may try, he cannot make money appear that does not exist — although I am sure that he wishes he could. The Budget, therefore, entails the Minister’s having to do his very best with the funding at his disposal. That means that every penny spent must produce more, as well as greater savings being made in Departments.
This Budget will result in businesses receiving more encouragement to establish in Northern Ireland, which will be of immense benefit to people who are not presently working — a situation that is relevant to my own constituency.
Funding for rural transport will ensure that services will be maintained for those who live in country areas of Northern Ireland. However, the biggest impact for rural residents, especially the older population, will be felt in the lowering of the eligible age for free public transport to 60 years of age. Those are most important steps in ensuring that rural populations do not suffer social exclusion due to poor access to public transport and lower incomes that restrict their ability to use the transport that is available.
The welcome announcement of additional funding for social housing covers rural and urban areas. That is a most encouraging start in making sure that all who need a home will have one. It will take time to achieve that aim, but the money that the Minister of Finance and Personnel has allocated is a great start.
I congratulate the Minister of Finance and Personnel on achieving so much with so little. The Assembly is delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, and I hope that the Budget will be unanimously supported by all Members.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr Cobain): The Committee for Regional Development, like other Committees, has spent considerable time discussing the Budget over the past few months. On behalf of the Committee for Regional Development, I thank all those individuals and stakeholder organisations who generously placed their time and expertise at the disposal of the Committee during its deliberations.
With the exception of £40 million in additional funding for roads investment in year three, the final departmental budget remains largely unchanged from the levels that were allocated in the draft Budget stage. The development allocation for the Department in the final Budget remains insufficient to meet the infrastructural, economic, social and environmental needs of Northern Ireland.
The allocations for structural maintenance in the Budget period are £125 million short of the £110 million per annum identified in the structural maintenance funding plan. The Committee is concerned about the road safety consequences of continued underfunding in that area. Those risks were highlighted in the most recent Roads Service annual report and accounts.
The Committee’s view is that supplementing inadequate Budget allocations with bids from in-year monitoring is not a viable long-term strategy for funding structural maintenance programmes, although funding from any source is welcome. The Committee will be urging for additional funding for structural roads maintenance through the in-year monitoring process and through future Budget rounds. Investment in road infrastructures is essential to the social and economic well-being of Northern Ireland.
A good quality road network is crucial to improving journey times in Northern Ireland, connectivity to and from our ports and airports, and facilitating business, tourism and balanced regional development. In addition, a substantial amount of our public transport is road-based, and access to health and social services, employment, education and training and cultural and sporting activities depend on an adequate, sustainable, safe and effective roads network.
The Committee remains concerned that the final Budget allocation of £608 million for roads capital is significantly below the “low scenario” of £1 billion in year one to year three in the draft investment strategy programme. The Committee notes that a welcome addition of £40 million has been allocated in year three of the Budget period, allowing Roads Service to progress a number of schemes in that year. However, the Committee will continue to press for increased roads allocations in light of the importance of connectivity and free-flowing road networks to continued economic development in Northern Ireland.
Like roads infrastructure, a good-quality integrated network of bus and rail transport services is a key element in underpinning economic development and access to education, employment, leisure and social services. Investment in public transport also brings environmental benefits in the form of reduced carbon emissions and reduced landscape, air and noise pollution.
Investment in buses and trains in recent years has made public transport a more attractive option, and has helped generate an increase in passenger journeys. However, there has been a persistent underspend in public transport infrastructure in the past. In addition, less than half of the public-transport bids that were submitted were successful in the final Budget, despite the fact that we heard support in the House last week from all parties for increased funding for the public-transport network.
The Committee is determined to address a number of other issues. Members are aware that provision for preparatory work on the Belfast to Londonderry rail line has been made in the Budget. The Committee recommends that urgent action be undertaken on that line as soon as possible. The Committee is also keen to see the extension of concessionary fares to people with a disability and those returning to work after a period of long-term unemployment; improved provision for those with disabilities, especially those in rural areas, in accessing concessionary fares or free public transport; and hourly bus services in more of Northern Ireland’s towns and villages.
The Committee will continue to press for additional funding for public transport, including rural transport services.
I turn to environmental concerns. There is little evidence of the radical rethink of polices that is needed to deliver the 60% to 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, which was the target identified by the Prime Minister in his speech of 19 November 2007. Given the impact of public and private transport on levels of carbon emissions and on air, environmental and noise pollution, the Committee is worried that DRD’s role in that area has not been recognised at all in the Budget.
The Department is finalising plans to deliver efficiency savings of £22 million, £44 million and £65 million over the three-year Budget period. The Committee’s view is that efficiencies must not be achieved at the expense of public services, public and road safety, and progress on planned infrastructural investments.
Finally, the Executive have yet to make a number of decisions on the outstanding issues that arose from strand one of the review report by the Independent Water Review Panel, as well as those that arose from strand two. Those issues include: the level of efficiency targets and their achievability; the level of the affordability tariff and its tenure; the financing of Northern Ireland Water; the funding of roads drainage; and the partial waiver of the dividend. The budgetary implications of those decisions should not fall to DRD’s budget, but should be funded directly by the Executive.
I wish to make a few personal points. I want to reiterate my strong opposition to the way in which rates and water charges are being handled. In his Budget statement of last week, the Minister of Finance and Personnel said:
“Let those who say that devolution makes no difference explain that logic to the average household, which will be £1,000 better off than it would have been if direct rule had continued.” — [Official Report, Vol 26, No 7, p314, col 1].
I can tell the Minister that tens of thousands of pensioners, working poor, near-benefit-level families, and people with disabilities who rely mainly on benefits will have to pay a water tax for the first time, and they will certainly not be £1,000 better off. The new tax will have a substantial and damaging impact on their already fragile living standards.
However, at the same time, we are faced with the unedifying spectacle of an affordability tariff for the rich, such that millionaires whose homes are worth over £400,000 will get their rates and water charges subsidised by the poor. Thus, the poor will pay more, and the rich will pay less than they should. It is disgraceful and obscene that burdens are being lifted from those who are best able to pay, while heavier burdens are being placed on the poor, who are least able to pay. That is morally and politically reprehensible. We are witnessing Thatcherism reborn, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and that is opening up deep social inequalities that have never properly healed. Those measures are being carried out under the guise of being business friendly, but that is no excuse. The Assembly must also be about social justice. The transformation of our society will never be achieved by exploiting and disregarding the poor and the less well off.
The new water tax will have knock-on effects. The list of those in need of social housing grows ever longer. Although I welcome the additional £205 million that the Minister for Social Development received in the revised allocation that the Finance Minister announced last week, I must sound a note of caution. That additional money is insufficient to meet the growing demand. The targets set by Sir John Semple in his review of affordable housing of 2,000 new social homes a year will not be met. In year 1, the target in the Budget is 500 short, in year 2, it is 250 short, and it reaches the Semple review level only in year 3.
How can the Executive claim that they subscribe to the targets set by Semple, particularly given that the Minister confirmed yesterday that there are currently 38,000 people who are classified as being in housing need, of which 21,000 are officially classified as homeless? Those figures will be further exacerbated by the introduction of a water tax. Many of the tenants in the private sector are already subsidising their housing benefit in order to pay their rent.
Any further increases in the form of a water tax will pass directly from the landlord to the tenant by way of a rent increase. There is little doubt that the figures quoted by the Minister yesterday can only increase and exacerbate an already desperate housing situation.
Mr A Maginness: I was surprised by the Finance Minister’s brutal honesty, but shocked by his statement that when he was a Minister during the previous mandate, his aim, and that of his DUP colleagues, was to bring down the Northern Ireland Executive and ensure its destruction. He clearly revelled in that most reprehensible strategy, and it is alarming that the DUP adopted such an approach at that time.
However, Members are grateful that he has been so blunt and honest. The SDLP has been accused of attacking, or undermining, the Executive, but it supports the political architecture of the Executive and the Assembly and will fight to maintain it. The SDLP is a member of the Executive as of right and agreed to a system of government in which everyone shares power. The SDLP will not be marginalised in any Executive: it will share power with everyone else, but will not be excluded from power by two parties that want to steamroll and press-gang the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP into a minority role, in which they will have virtually no say.
The SDLP will continue to fight for the rights of ordinary people in society. That is why the SDLP is opposed to the Budget, has tabled an amendment and is an honest party. The Back-Benchers in Sinn Féin and the DUP have rolled over and accepted the Budget, but the SDLP rejects it. It is not a people’s Budget; it is a Thatcherite Budget. The Finance Minister is aware that Margaret Ritchie made that perfectly clear to the Executive when they were discussing the Budget.
Mr P Robinson: If members of the SDLP were beating their chests in the way the Member now describes, will he please explain to the House why its Minister did not put to the Executive any of the proposals that the SDLP says are essential? Why was there not a single amendment?
Mr A Maginness: Perhaps the Finance Minister does not understand that there are two —
Mrs I Robinson: Perhaps if the Member were to speak in French —
Mr A Maginness: The Member must wait for a moment.
There are two elements to this political set-up: the Executive and the Assembly. During the debate on the draft Budget, I said that the DUP, and indeed some Sinn Féin Members, wanted to turn the Assembly into the Supreme Soviet. It now appears that the DUP and Sinn Féin want to turn the Executive into the politburo, because they want neither discussion nor dissent.
The SDLP will maintain its independent line in the Executive and the Assembly. As a party in the Assembly, the SDLP will not be bound by the dictates of Peter Robinson or anyone else in the Executive.
Mr P Robinson: Did the SDLP table an amendment?
Mr Durkan: The SDLP did table an amendment.
Mr P Robinson: The SDLP has not tabled an amendment.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Continue, Mr Maginness.
Mr A Maginness: I am sorry, Peter, get some therapy in relation to all of this.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member should address his remarks through the Chair.
Mr P Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I ask that the Member withdraw his remark. If he does not, Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask you to consider the issue. It is up to you whether you do it now or whether the Speaker does it. That remark has to be withdrawn, or the Member should be withdrawn.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I was calling “Order”, so I did not hear the remark. I will check Hansard and refer the matter to the Speaker, who will make a ruling at a later date.
Mr A Maginness: As I was saying, perhaps the Minister of Finance and Personnel does not understand that this is a democratic Assembly in which Members discuss and debate issues. I know that members of Sinn Féin do not take any interventions during their speeches, but this Assembly is a democratic institution in which Members debate things and table amendments. Members should not be shocked by amendments. Minister Ritchie expressed the SDLP’s reservations at the Executive meeting, as Mr Robinson well knows. Therefore, nothing comes as a shock or a surprise to the Minister of Finance, any other Minister, or, indeed, any Member of the Assembly. We have clearly stated our position throughout this process.
On one hand, the Minister prides himself on receiving all sorts of submissions from the public asking about all sorts of changes to the draft Budget. However, when the SDLP makes reasonable propositions and reasonable criticisms of the draft Budget, they are dismissed. He says that we should not suggest such changes.
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr A Maginness: I will. However, I hope that I get more time.
Mr S Wilson: I hope that you do. If these amendments are serious —
Mr A Maginness: I have to finish.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member refused to give way. Extra time is granted only when the speech is of five minutes or less. Any speech over that length gets exactly the time that has been given, which in this case is 10 minutes.
Mr A Maginness: I hope that I am given extra time because of all the interruptions.
This is clearly not a people’s Budget. It is a Thatcherite Budget. It is clear that no provision has been made for the children’s fund. Incidentally, it is interesting to read Sinn Féin’s submission on the draft Budget, which calls for an Executive fund for children. There is silence from Sinn Féin today on that issue. The SDLP is backing that call. Why does Sinn Féin not come into the Lobby with us and back us on that issue?
There are no clear lines of funding for an anti-poverty strategy. We have heard about post-primary education; however, the Budget makes no provision for that. The present Minister of Education — I emphasise the “present” — has said that post-primary education is cost-neutral. I want to see her assessments of that.
Mr D Bradley: I thank the Member for giving way. The Member will recall that on 4 December 2007 the Minister of Education announced that:
“We now have an opportunity to truly transform our system into one that is world class and fit for the twenty-first century.” — [Offical Report, Bound Volume 26, p7, col 2].
As the Member has said, and, indeed, as the Minister of Finance has said, those reforms are to be cost-neutral. However, the three-year Budget does not provide any line for key policy developments, including the reform of post-primary education. Does the Member agree that it is difficult to build an education system that is world class and fit for the twenty-first century when the money is not available to do so, and when it was not even bid for?
Mr A Maginness: I agree entirely. I also agree with Mr Cobain that there is no clarity on water charging in the Budget. What is being planned? A water tax is being planned. They are going to sneak it through, despite all of the protests from the Sinn Féin Benches. Sinn Féin will simply bow down and accept that, because they are pushovers.
The Finance Minister has provided money for social and affordable housing, but it is not enough. As Mr Cobain rightly pointed out, the Semple targets will not be reached, because the Minister has not provided sufficient funding. There has been a good improvement, but not good enough.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
There has been much talk about asset disposal, but too many eggs are being placed in one basket. What will happen if the bottom falls out of the market, or if the international volatility continues and the entire strategy is undermined?
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I am going to be rather boring and mundane, because I shall stick to health issues. I do not apologise for that.
The proportion of overall Executive expenditure on health and social care is highlighted in the Budget, and the Health Committee concurs with the view that one of the most significant issues facing the present and future Executives will be the priority that should be given to health and social services, compared to other public services.
The Health Committee devoted considerable time and energy over a five-week period to examining the proposals in the draft Budget in some detail. In addition to departmental officials and the Minister, the Committee took evidence from representatives of the four health and social services boards, and the Mental Health and Learning Disability Board. The Committee recognises that the achievement of significant efficiency savings by the Department is absolutely essential if it is to be able to provide vital health and social-care services.
The Committee welcomed an unequivocal commitment by the Minister that he will deliver those efficiencies and meet the target of £343 million over the next three years. The Committee expressed very serious concerns about the ongoing delay in reaching a decision on the new structures that will replace boards as set out under the review of public administration. That is causing uncertainty, frustration and a loss of morale among existing staff, as well as absorbing valuable resources that should be directed to other key service developments. However, I welcome yesterday’s indication from the Minister that a decision on the way forward is imminent.
The Committee concluded that, even allowing for any increased efficiencies above the required 3%, the outcome of the draft Budget would not enable the Department to implement some much-needed new service developments. In particular, the Committee reaffirmed its total commitment to seeing the recommendations of the Bamford Review into mental health and learning disability implemented in full and without delay.
Therefore, the Committee wholeheartedly welcomes the extra funding for health that was announced in the Budget statement last week. That additional funding has the clear potential to make a very significant difference over the next three years, but it must be used efficiently and appropriately.
An additional £10 million per year was allocated in response to strong views expressed during the consultation period about the need for extra resources for mental-health and learning-disability services. However, as the Minister of Finance and Personnel made clear during his statement, it is a matter for the Minister of Health, Public Services and Public Safety how that will be used.
The Committee welcomes the indication from the Department through a statement and a press release that:
“an extra £50 million for mental health and learning disability will double the resettlement of long-stay patients, double the previous provision for community mental health teams and significantly improve respite for carers”.
However, the Committee calls for that money to be ring-fenced specifically for mental-health and learning-disability services. That will not only provide an assurance of the priority being given to mental-health and learning-disability services to those working in that field, but would ensure that the money could not be diverted when pressures arise in other areas, as has happened so often in the past.
The Health Committee also took evidence earlier this month from Professor John Appleby, Chief Economist at the King’s Fund in London.
Professor Appleby, who carried out an independent review of health and social care in Northern Ireland in 2005, highlighted areas where the Health Service here is much less efficient than in other parts of the United Kingdom. He said:
“In 2005, we found almost 20% lower output per staff than the UK average — that is nearly a fifth. …We looked at hospital activity per bed and found that that was around 26% lower than in England.”
I mentioned earlier the significant efficiency savings that the Department will have to make over the coming three years just to reach the required 3% level. In its report on the draft Budget, the Committee concluded that there may well be scope for further efficiency savings above the required 3%, and it had sought an assurance that the Department would be able to retain any additional savings achieved in that way. The Committee is pleased to note the announcement last week by the Minister of Finance and Personnel that the Health Service will be able to retain any further efficiencies that it can deliver beyond the existing 3% target for immediate reinvestment into front-line services to patients.
I will conclude on behalf of the Committee by saying that the draft Budget has now been decided for the next three years. The Minister and the Department must deliver an efficient and effective health and social care service, and the Committee will continue to play its part.
I will turn now to more party-political matters. Some people have mischievously tried to claim that I, the DUP health spokesperson, did not want to see further resources directed towards health — a ludicrous allegation. Clearly, that is not true. Believe me, there is no limit to the sums that I would devote to health, were they available. I welcome every extra penny added on since the draft Budget was presented.
There is much more to ensuring a good Health Service than the sums allocated. Productivity and what the public gets out for the money that it puts in are essential. Resources must be put to the most effective use. It is unrealistic to expect more and more money to be ploughed in endlessly, with double-digit percentage increases in Budget after Budget. In order to illustrate that point, the funding proposed for health over the three-year period is more than twice that provided by the previous Executive.
We will always be able to use more money, but we must ensure that performance and productivity improve. The recent Wanless review report confirmed that, despite massive investment year on year, the same failings of the NHS persist across the water. It is only by promoting innovation and increasing productivity that progress can be made. That is why there was such frustration at the lack of movement on the RPA reforms. Thankfully, we can at last look forward to some progress, with the news of a ministerial statement next week.
Local commissioning groups, comprising general practitioners and other health professionals, have been in place since February. Individuals have agreed to give up their time to serve their local communities, and they have the opportunity to improve and influence services in their areas. They must be permitted to get on with that work without further delay.
Incentives must be introduced to maximise performance, outcomes and cost-effectiveness. Inefficiency and inertia must be driven out. Merely meeting efficiency targets may get us through the next couple of years, but without reform, the Health Service will be in little better shape in three years’ time, come the next comprehensive spending review. Overhauling the way in which we commission services is vital. The formation of a single health authority is about much more than a simple matter of rationalisation. The most important consequences concern performance management and the financial management of health services across the Province.
The single health authority was to be the commissioning organiser, maintaining the local commissioning groups, and itself commissioning regional services — a single bureaucracy to support local groups and reduce duplication. Its performance-management role would be the key to holding local commissioning groups and trusts to account — something sadly lacking, previously.
The average cost of prescription items is 10·3% higher in Northern Ireland than across the water. The number of administrators here has increased by 37% since 1997. Those are examples of issues that we can begin to tackle.
Mahatma Gandhi said:
“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.”
An investment in health is an investment in the very heart of the nation, and the additional £10 million year on year for the next three years is very welcome. How the Executive balance the needs of health and social services with the other public services will demonstrate their maturity and wisdom. Those decisions will demonstrate that we understand that health is a foundation stone in the building of a new society in Northern Ireland.
As the Royal College of Psychiatrists states, there is no health without mental health. Mental health is an important area of need, and we must reassure the public that the additional funds, when taken with the 3% efficiency savings that are to be made, will not result in any decrease in service delivery. Even though the elderly population is increasing, mortality rates are decreasing, so attention must be paid to the mental-health needs of those who are aged over 65. Conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia have a significant effect on the quality of life of people in that age group and on the health of their carers. Hopefully, the Minister will reassure us that any moneys that are released from efficiency savings in the mental-health sector will not only remain in that sector, but will be age blind.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Lunn: I oppose the Budget, as it has been presented, and I support the Alliance Party’s amendment. Mr Weir is not in the Chamber, but if I sound like a stuck record, so be it.
The issues of tackling sectarianism and segregation, rebalancing the economy and delivering integrated and sustainable public services apply not only to the Government’s policy programme but to the funding that they allocate to it. The Alliance Party opposed the Programme for Government, and it opposes the Budget on the basis that neither tackles those issues head on.
We are sorry that the debate has degenerated, at times, into one where the Minister of Finance and Personnel and others have chosen to lambaste parties rather than arguments. In a democracy, there is nothing wrong with dissent or discussion. There is nothing wrong with debate — even angry debate — but the focus should be on issues, not on personalities or parties. At the start of the debate, the Minister graciously gave us permission to oppose the motion. Our dissent will not be stifled when we feel that it is appropriate —
Mr P Robinson: I did not give you permission to oppose the Budget; I supported your right to do so.
Mr Lunn: All right. I do not know whether that was an intervention.
In its opposition to the Budget, the Alliance Party would gladly have considered building consensus with the SDLP. I congratulate that party for tabling an amendment that is even more complex than ours. However, in this context —
Mr Durkan: It is more precise.
Mr Lunn: It is more precise, if the Member prefers that terminology.
Declan O’Loan’s remarks this morning were somewhat unfortunate. Given that we agree with much of the SDLP’s amendment, we would have been prepared to have given that party the benefit of the doubt, despite feeling that its amendment misses the main points. It does not refer to the cost of division or to a shared future. That omission is surely not accidental, as it would have made the SDLP amendment almost indistinguishable from ours.
Turning to tackling division, we come to education. The DUP has a democratic mandate, fairly won, to lead the Executive. The Executive have presented a Programme for Government that is committed to a thriving Irish-medium sector. Therefore, the Budget should be committed to funding that sector. Irish-medium club banks provide the best way to achieve that; that is why we voted in favour of them. However, our preference is for integrated education through the medium of Irish where demand exists.
Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?
Mr Lunn: Certainly. I think that I had better.
Mr D Bradley: It is my understanding that the Minister of Education has now rejected Irish-medium club banks. However, the Irish-language film fund has not been catered for in the Budget. Does the Member agree that the money that has already been invested in that project will be wasted unless it is followed up with further investment and resources?
Mr Lunn: I thank the Member; he knows more about the Minister’s thoughts than I do. I do not disagree with him.
Integrated education is the preferable way forward, and it is a matter of public record that we support Irish-medium education where there is demand for it.
Therefore, it is a pity that the Executive’s new-found commitment to a shared future remains firmly in quotation marks. That commitment is not matched by funding to deliver a thriving integrated sector and more places in integrated schools, in line with parental demand.
My party is more ambitious than that. The integration of our society should start at the point at which parents demand — as early as possible in life. Funding must match that.
I turn to the arts — an area in which cross-community projects occur effortlessly. However, because the arts received no uplift at all in the draft Budget, Members should not be surprised that that sector was so vocal during the response process. Another £2 million has been found for the arts, and that is a step in the right direction. However, it remains a very small step. That will leave funding for the arts still below £7·50 a head, and that compares with £12 a head in each of the neighbouring jurisdictions.
Finally, on the issue of tackling divisions, the Budget includes commitments to efficiencies. Those are welcome insofar as they match Great Britain’s, but, if the Executive are to freeze rates, the Budget must go further.
The Minister said earlier that he had invited the Alliance Party to talk to him about some of those matters. We would be more than prepared to do that. Mr Weir and Mr Beggs both asked for more meat on the bones of our suggestions. However, we produced a 19-page response to the draft Budget during the consultation period, and I see nothing of that in the final document. However, we made our presentation, and we are prepared to take up the Minister’s offer to talk to him at any time.
My colleague Stephen Farry appropriately outlined the Alliance Party’s difficulty with the Budget’s underlying economic policy. Let me be clear: we have nothing against low taxes. We fought an election campaign offering lower rates bills, but we specified that we would bring them about by making savings based on reducing the costs of division. The Budget is not committed to that, not even in the long term. We want to match low taxes with balanced investment, to deliver better services to indigenous businesses and to deliver better public services and an improved quality of life that will make Northern Ireland a much better place in which to invest. The Alliance Party is not alone in that. The Confederation of British Industry and the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland, scarcely known for advocating high taxes, are entirely at one with us on those matters.
On public services, I have already outlined areas of education and culture that can deliver a society that is committed to ending the divisions that sadly define it. It is noteworthy, with respect to education, that area planning is an essential part of delivering money to pupils, not buildings. That means not just integration along religious lines, but shared facilities.
On health, most of all, we were disappointed that the bid for free personal care for older people was not met. That was a specific manifesto commitment of all four Executive parties. They all contested the election having indicated that that was a priority; however, they have not delivered.
On transport, the Alliance Party has been clear that, in funding, the ratio of roads to public transport should be shifted in favour of public transport, and particularly towards rail. If imposing tolls on new roads is necessary to make that viable, so be it. Toll roads have proved effective in the South. We want to know precisely what the allocation is for. Is a light-rail system to be constructed, or are we getting just another consultant’s report? When will the results of the current report be made available to Members and the public? The Minister must use that allocation to prove that he is serious about his shift towards public transport, particularly with respect to the greater Belfast area, where, if properly delivered, a light railway would serve to ease congestion dramatically.
Last Tuesday, the Minister referred to our putting our shoulders to the wheel. The Alliance Party would like to get its hands on the wheel, never mind its shoulders. I hope that our day will come in that respect.
Mr D Bradley: Tiocfaidh ár lá.
Mr Lunn: You stole my line, Dominic.
In the meantime, my party will continue to provide input, make suggestions and try to provide constructive opposition, even in the teeth of criticism.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Hilditch): As Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, I welcome the motion tabled by the Minister of Finance and Personnel on the programme for expenditure proposals 2008-09 to 2010-11 as set out in the Budget that was laid before the Assembly on 22 January 2008.
The Committee welcomes the additional allocation for social housing in the final Budget and is grateful that the four-party Executive listened to all concerns expressed during the consultation process on the funding that was originally allocated.
Providing access to decent, affordable, energy-efficient housing is a priority for the Department for Social Development. The additional £250 million that has been agreed for investment in that area will go a long way towards increasing the supply of social homes. The severe lack of affordable and social housing is a serious issue. I want to re-emphasise the need for joined-up Government, which other Members referred to during the debate on the draft Budget. The Department for Social Development must work strategically with other Departments, and all Departments must be committed to dealing with the issue.
The Minister has been unable to provide the Committee with specific details on how that additional money will be allocated, although the Committee understands that 5,250 houses will be built over the next three years, and up to 10,000 additional affordable and social homes will be delivered by 2013. The Committee must examine the wording that has been used — “up to 10,000” — although that is a matter that will be discussed with the Minister at a future date.
The Committee will pay particular attention to how the warm homes scheme will be taken forward in light of additional funding. That scheme has proved to be a lifeline for some people — the vulnerable, the elderly, and those who are in poverty. It is of the utmost importance that the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in society benefit from the Budget. Let it not be forgotten that it was through the warm homes scheme that many people were identified and subsequently benefited from the benefits uptake campaign some time ago.
The Department for Social Development has a target to deliver cash-releasing efficiencies of £113·7 million during the next three years. That will be achieved through several measures; for example, the social security modernisation programme, streamlining the delivery of urban regeneration programmes, targeting housing resources much more effectively, and realigning manpower levels in departmental priorities to bring about staff reductions. That will provide the Department with additional spending power, and the Committee will be interested in seeing the details of the Department’s efficiency programme.
Mr Poots: The Member paints a fairly good picture of the Budget outcomes for the Department for Social Development. Does he, therefore, disagree with the previous SDLP speaker, who appeared to attack the outcome of the process and the Minister for Social Development?
Mr Hilditch: Indeed, I do disagree. The events of the past 24 hours have been interesting.
Improving efficiency is a key element in the Budget process. I commend the capital realisation task force’s work to identify ways in which more effective management of the Executive’s assets might raise additional funding. A potential £900 million has been identified over the next 10 years, which is, indeed, a sizeable sum. The task force has also identified ways that the proceeds from up to £295 million worth of asset disposals might be reinvested during the Budget period. However, I understand that further analysis of the scope and feasibility of those potential disposals must be carried out.
During the consultation process on the draft Budget, significant pressures were identified by all Departments. As I understand it, the only way that substantial extra resources could have been allocated to any Department would have been by reducing the allocations proposed for other Departments. The Committee welcomes the Executive’s decision not to pursue that option and is content for Minister Ritchie to use her discretion to deploy her available resources in pursuit of the Executive’s strategic priorities and objectives as set out in the Programme for Government. The Committee will, of course, play an important role in scrutinising and advising the Minister on all matters relating to the Budget.
In conclusion, the Committee supports the motion. The Committee has worked as a sound and solid unit throughout the Budget consultation process and has strongly supported Minister Ritchie in trying to secure funds with which to deliver the goods. I, therefore, wonder how she will feel about the SDLP members of the Committee potentially throwing her efforts back in her face later today.
Earlier, Sammy Wilson put us in the mood for a song. It is certainly not a case of, “Wake up, Maggie”, as in the words of Rod Stewart’s song ‘Maggie May’; rather, it is a case of, “Wake up, SDLP.” I support the motion.
Mr Gardiner: I preface my remarks by saying that I welcome the fact that the Budget is a Northern Ireland Budget that is presented by a Northern Ireland Finance Minister to a Northern Ireland Assembly.
I wish to examine the Budget’s impact on the environment; Roads Service; the delivery of public-service reform; and, in particular, planning reform.
For environmentalists, the Budget is the Budget that was not. The opportunity to create and fund an independent environmental protection agency has been let slip. Given that we have a three-year Programme for Government, we, therefore, arrive at the inescapable conclusion that nothing will be done on that front for at least three years. It is not a question of “Next year in Jerusalem”, nor is it even a question of the year-after-next-year in Jerusalem. We remain the only part of the United Kingdom without an independent environmental protection agency. For those on the other side of the community divide, we remain the only part of the island of Ireland without an independent environmental protection agency.
Farmers’ concerns must be taken on board, and properly. At the same time —
Mr T Clarke: Will the Member give way?
Mr Gardiner: I will not give way; I need all the time in which I am allowed to speak.
Farmers’ concerns must be taken on board, and properly. At the same time, however, that is no excuse for the continued inaction, and the clear postponement of action to outside the three-year time frame. Like many other Members, I had hoped to see a rationale behind environmental policy, and the funding base in place to support reform. However, that is simply not there.
The same is true of the reform of our public administration, including the reform of local councils, and the planning reform that flows from that. Once again, I deplore the fact that that issue, among others, appears to have been allowed to drift. That drift damages morale, especially that of those who work in the Planning Service. It does little to inspire confidence in Government direction.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the statement on the Giant’s Causeway that Minister Foster made earlier. I welcome it, and I also welcome her decision. It is a great pity that that decision was not reached earlier so that Northern Ireland’s image did not look as bad as it does today.
Although the maintenance of roads across Northern Ireland is not an environmental issue, it is nonetheless important to the rural community. Planned roads expenditure for 2007-08 is £3,800 a mile. That is only 70% of the figure that was allocated for spending on roads four years ago. It is planned that £59 million will be spent on roads this year, compared with the £82 million spent in 2003-04. Worse still, that is a small fraction of spending on roads elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In England, the equivalent amount spent is £13,000 a kilometre, which converts to £20,967 a mile. In Wales, £7,600 a kilometre is spent, which equates to £12,258 a mile. As I have said, just £3,800 a mile is spent on roads in Northern Ireland. Spending on roads in Northern Ireland stands at just 18% of that in England and 31% of that in Wales.
If that situation is not attended to, it will lead to serious long-term problems. Look at the amount of money that has had to be spent on the rail infrastructure in England because of decades of neglect. There is already evidence that that unfortunate pattern may be repeated in Northern Ireland’s road system.
In 2006, DRD spent over £101,000 to settle 425 claims. In 2007, over £73,000 of taxpayers’ money was used to settle 445 of the 934 claims that were submitted. The Department for Regional Development has paid out almost £330,000 on personal injury and vehicle damage claims since 2005.
I hope that if there is an underspend in any Department, the Minister of Finance and Personnel will ensure that the environment, roads, public services and planning reform are assisted, to improve those services for the benefit of all the people in Northern Ireland.
Mr Durkan: I support amendment No 2. Other Members have questioned and attacked the SDLP’s right to table an amendment because the party has a Minister in the Executive. However, Members have not been able to refute any of the points in our amendment. The Budget proposals do not provide clear budgetary lines for the key policy developments that are being championed, including the anti-poverty strategy. The best that Sammy Wilson could offer was an acknowledgement that that is true, but that it could not be so anyway.
Our amendment says that the Budget proposals:
“fail to set out funding commitments in respect of proposed reforms in post-primary education”.
That is absolutely true; nobody is able to say that the funding proposals are clear in the Budget, because they are not. If it is an all-singing, all-dancing Budget, and if post-primary education reform is the most important issue that is facing us, it is bizarre in the extreme that that is not provided for in the Budget, and not even addressed or mentioned in the Programme for Government.
It is also true that the Budget proposals:
“abandon cross-cutting funds, including a fund for children and young people”.
The integrated development fund is also to be wound up. That is exactly the type of fund that would have worked well in somewhere such as Limavady, with the challenges that it is facing, because that fund was designed exactly to meet social and economic challenges in different localities.
Our amendment is also right to say that the Budget proposals:
“are unclear in their implications for householders in terms of future charging for water.”
When the reviews of water and rates were announced, the timelines that were given suggested that outcomes would be available by the time that we were taking decisions on the revised Budget. That has not happened; the strand two report on water was published yesterday, and it is going out for a 12-week consultation. There are implications in the recommendations of that report, and in the likely response of the Executive and Ministers.
Ministers are not saying that they will endorse the recommendations of the independent panel to source water revenue as part of the rates, with no separate charges or metering. It seems that Ministers are prepared to consider other options for charging and separate water charges. The SDLP stood on a clear manifesto that said no separate water charges; we wanted water revenue to be a clear, transparent part of the rates. That was our position in the last Executive; we wrote that option into the rating policy review that was brought forward at that time. The SDLP has taken that position consistently. Other parties have said that that is their consistent position, but they seem to be shifting in the current context. We are not.
Therefore, all the points of our amendment stand. If we were guilty of opportunism and cynicism, we would have thrown all sorts of populist and attractive issues into our amendment, such as proposals for free personal care and free prescriptions, which other parties had in their manifestos.
However, we did not include those issues in our amendment, because we recognise that, due to current constraints, some of them will not be feasible unless we achieve other savings and resources over time.
The amendment is clearly focused, reasoned and restrained. When the Programme for Government and the Budget were presented, Sinn Féin and the DUP were at pains to say that they were different, that it was their production now, and that they were doing things differently from how other parties would have done them.
The SDLP’s amendment simply makes the point that we would have done things differently if we had been in a stronger position. Apparently, that is wrong. We are not making some unspeakable point — we are simply saying that we would have done things differently and that we have done things differently in the past.
We created the Executive programme funds as a way of getting more cross-cutting effort and more joined-up approaches across Government. Members now tell us that they do not favour such approaches, but the same Members were complaining yesterday about silo approaches. Cross-cutting funds, commissioning bids, and proposals from parties for more joined-up actions were designed to get over that silo mentality.
Funds are now simply being given back to Departments; that is spending via the traditional Civil Service route, which is through Departments. Some of us want things to be more radical than that. We are told that the Programme for Government and the Budget are about more cross-cutting actions. We are also told that the Budget clearly supports the Programme for Government, but, on Sammy Wilson’s admission today, that is not the case. There is much talk about cross-cutting actions and initiatives in the Programme for Government, but there is no trace of associated budgetary lines in the Budget.
Claims have been made that the SDLP should be prevented from tabling amendments. However, the Assembly, not the Executive, takes the legal decision to approve the Budget, and all Members must take that responsibility seriously. If the Assembly’s purpose were merely to rubber-stamp whatever the Executive agreed, it should not exist at all.
Mr P Robinson: That is the most absurd argument that I have ever heard. It is not a case of denying the SDLP the right to table an amendment — it is the ambush by the SDLP in its decision to table it now. The party failed to table the amendment at the Executive where it could have had an impact on the Budget.
Mr Durkan: It is not an ambush. When Ministers negotiate a Budget, inevitably they concentrate on the budget lines of their Departments. From my experience of budgetary matters, that is what motivated Ministers in the past. They were most focused on their own budget lines, and that is right and proper. Indeed, in today’s debate the Ulster Unionist Party stated that although it has reservations about aspects of the Budget, it supports the Budget because of its Ministers’ share of it. It is natural and proper for Ministers to prioritise and focus on what they will get for their Departments and for key budget lines.
Margaret Ritchie rightly and strongly set out her priorities on social and affordable housing. She also rightly and properly made gains between the draft Budget and the revised Budget, and she voted for the Budget at the Executive to secure that budget line. That is how people have endorsed and agreed Budgets in the past. I know from experience — and the Finance Minister will realise in the future — that Ministers will soon tell him that although they agreed the Budget, they wanted to leave room for manoeuvre and wanted other things to be included in it. Those are the terms in which Ministers agree to such things.
However, parties in the Assembly are different. The Minister of Finance told us last week that parties should not determine their position on the Budget simply on the basis of how well their Minister is doing. Our Minister has done well in respect of social and affordable housing in the revised Budget. However, there are other questions to be asked about it. No party should be bought and bound because of budgetary gains achieved by its Minister.
There are wholesale issues in relation to the Budget, and our amendment touches on only some of them. It is realistic to request cross-cutting funds in the style of Executive programme funds to support priorities and to ensure that Departments must show good form in taking forward some of those measures.
This is a three-year Budget, and we cannot vote in the blind with regard to what will happen to water charges, for example. We do not want to be told, down the road, that our endorsement of the three-year Budget, when the recommendations of strands one and two of the independent water review panel’s report were known, implied that we were going along with the plans for water charges — whatever they might be. We are not. Our position holds. The Budget states that there will be a reduced subsidy for water. We know that there are plans afoot, but we have not seen them.
Before the House is a three-year Budget, and the SDLP will not vote in the blind when such unknowns and ambiguities exist.
The SDLP stands by its manifesto commitments; we reflect our mandate. The SDLP Minister made the strongest possible case at the Executive, and set out strong grounds on inclusion and deprivation during the early work on the draft Programme for Government. She clearly stated her reservations about certain aspects and dimensions of the Programme for Government and its related Budget. She did not table a formal amendment, and, in those circumstances, neither would I have done. My priority would have been to ensure that I secured the improved budget line for my Department. If Margaret Ritchie had tabled an amendment at that stage, it would have resulted in a further downwards revision in her own budget line.
The SDLP is properly using its position in the Assembly. This is not an ambush; it is accountability and democratic politics in the interests of the public.
Ms Purvis: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. The Budget is allocated to deliver the Executive’s priorities as set out in the Programme for Government. This Budget will not reduce or eliminate child poverty or protect our environment. Rather, it will increase deprivation with the introduction of water charges. The Budget benefits big business, developers and owners of big cars.
More than 100,000 children are living in officially defined levels of poverty in Northern Ireland. That means that 100,000 children are not given the chance to experience or make choices that can improve their lives. Not all of those children are from families who live on benefits; 47% of children living in poverty in Northern Ireland live in a family with at least one working parent.
The impact of poverty and deprivation is stark. Infant death is one-third higher in deprived areas, and teenage pregnancy rates are higher. Some 28% of those living in deprived areas do not have a bank account; therefore, they pay more for financial services and utilities. Children from deprived areas do less well at school. We know that from the 11-plus results and performances at GCSE level and in further and higher education.
There are 27,000 families with children in Northern Ireland living in fuel poverty. The Budget contained a new allocation to fuel poverty, but it will do nothing to reduce the 2008 waiting list on the warm homes scheme. Families with disabled children are 50% more likely to be in debt. Although all families in Northern Ireland can afford to feed their children, their diets are not sufficient for proper health and well-being. Everyone knows how diet can benefit a child’s progress and development.
I do not believe that the Executive will start to tackle child poverty, and Members must look at the contradictions. The future of community education programmes is in question. Those programmes help many people in the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland, especially women. They help women to return to education and, eventually, to the labour market. Those programmes are under threat, and if they end, the Executive’s priorities will not be delivered.
Government initiatives regarding childcare — including Sure Start — have been developed. Many parents, particularly lone parents, continually struggle to find flexible quality and affordable childcare. Childcare is essential in supporting those people in their return to work. The lack of proper, affordable, good quality and flexible childcare will add to the levels of child poverty in Northern Ireland.
Families who are affected by disability need more help than others — bringing up a disabled child costs three times more than raising a non-disabled child. Parents of such families are less likely to work and, if they do, they are more likely to be in low-paid jobs. If the Executive are to tackle child poverty, they must address those and other issues seriously.
The children’s fund, which was one of the Executive programme funds, has helped many children in deprived areas of Northern Ireland. Over the past year, I have encountered several projects that have benefited many families in my constituency of East Belfast: one example is the Tullycarnet family project.
In addition, the Quaker Cottage teen project works with young people who are at risk from suicide, self harm and drug abuse. As the children’s fund is to be scrapped, what will happen to those projects, and the children and families they support? Funding for many projects is not ring-fenced, or mainstreamed, and people will suffer as a result.
I will briefly mention water charging. As I said yesterday, my party is opposed to the introduction of water charges. People here have been paying for water through their rates and should not have to pay twice. Families receiving rate relief will not benefit by the introduction of water charges. When water charges are introduced, everyone in this society will be expected to pay, and, therefore, people who receive benefit and rate relief will not be £1,000 better off following the Budget. It is another expense that vulnerable families could do without.
Mr Gardiner spoke about the need to protect the environment. I fail to comprehend how money for roads rather than much-needed investment in public transport, to make it a viable, quality choice for people, will reduce emissions or our carbon footprint.
As one of the few left-of-centre representatives in the Chamber, I must criticise the concentrated use of PFIs and PPPs. I note the comments made by the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel; and given that Sinn Féin is chuckling its way towards raving capitalism and is voting for the Budget, I am astonished that its members can stand up in this House and criticise the use of PFI. PFI goes against democratic principles; it benefits private developers and it is not a fair deal for taxpayers. Private developers are unelected and unaccountable, and those who are using PFI to take over our hospitals and schools will leave a millstone of debt — potentially billions of pounds — for our children.
Finally, much has been said about criticism of the Budget. Everyone wants devolution, the Assembly, and the Executive to work and succeed. However, there is a way to bring down the Executive and the structures of Government and bring the Assembly to an end. It was not taken up during the last Executive, but the potential is still there — people do not have to vote for this Budget if they do not want to do so.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom labhairt ar son an Choiste Cultúir agus ansin cúpla focal a rá mar Chomhalta príobháideach.
I will make some opening remarks in my capacity as the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, a LeasCheann Comhairle, followed by some comments as an individual MLA.
First, I will comment on the aspects of the Budget allocation that relate to the arts, libraries and sport. I welcome the Budget increase for the arts. Although relatively modest, it is nonetheless an increase. Of course, arts sector representatives continue to say that the settlement falls short of requirements and will not deliver a per-capita funding figure matching other regions in these islands. For example, in the Twenty-six Counties the figure is close to £14, whereas it is less than £7 in the North.
I commend the arts lobby for putting a coherent and compelling case to the forefront of political awareness in the time between the publication of the draft Budget and the final Budget allocations. The Finance Minister said in his Budget statement on 22 January 2008:
“Of all the issues, funding for the arts was the main theme in terms of the quantity of responses, reflecting a well-organised effort by the arts sector to highlight its concerns”. [Official Report, Bound Volume 26, p315, col 2].
The arts lobby made itself heard. The Executive showed that they were prepared to listen and respond positively, which is a welcome development that shows the positive impact of the new political dispensation. We all have a better understanding of the contribution of the arts to wider society in areas such as health, the economy and cultural tourism. The Minister of Finance and Personnel acknowledged those benefits in his Budget speech.
Although the situation is better than it would have been under the draft Budget, serious challenges remain. Like the arts, libraries in the North enjoy significantly less funding per capita than in other regions. The additional £0·5 million each year is welcome. On 22 January, the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure heard representatives from the education and library boards voice concern that reductions and efficiencies have already been carried out and that there is nothing more to give. That is a crucial area for the continual attention of the Executive. I am mindful that other monitoring rounds and the spring Supplementary Estimates lie in the immediate future — I hope that the Executive continue to show that they are listening to those lobbies that make strong and compelling cases.
Libraries are undervalued and, perhaps, undersold. They play a crucial role in tackling problems of illiteracy, and they make provision for migrant workers who often use Internet and other facilities. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister must have a greater appreciation of the beneficial role that library provision has for migrant workers and ethnic communities, and the role of libraries in the promotion and facilitation of cultural tourism.
At a time when there is a freeze on capital projects at a community level, where much good work is being done, it is regrettable that there is no additional funding for sport. I have just come from a wonderful event in the Long Gallery, which celebrated the work of an excellent community-based sporting organisation in Belfast called Cumann Spórt an Phobail, which operates in the Ballymurphy, Upper Springfield and Whiterock areas. With Sport NI, we saw evidence of tremendous work happening at a community level to improve sports facilities and opportunities for young and old people. Therefore, it is regrettable that there is no additional funding for sport in the Budget. Members must send positive messages about the role of sport in promoting health and tackling obesity and remind ourselves of the Executive target to get 125,000 children in the North participating in sport and physical recreation by 2011. I take this opportunity to reinforce those points about sport, arts and libraries.
As an MLA, I welcome the extra £4·6 million allocated to youth services in the final Budget.
Again, the Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane, has listened during the consultation period, and has recognised the importance of youth services, youth clubs and youth projects. The final allocation reveals that there will be an additional £4·6 million over three years. However, I have to say that the Executive must keep their eye on that particular ball. We must listen to the Youth Service and the youth sector about the challenges that they face. I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether opportunities might arise for youth projects in the upcoming monitoring rounds and the spring Supplementary Estimates.
The final Budget allocation shows that Ministers are listening, but they must demonstrate that they are continuing to listen as other opportunities arise.
Mr D Bradley: The Member was absent from the Chamber when I raised this point earlier. Will he agree with me that it would be advantageous if the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure would listen more closely to the Irish language lobby? I refer in particular to the Irish language film fund, which has not been catered for in this Budget. Many small companies depend on that fund for training and production support. If the fund is not augmented, that would represent bad practice. Indeed, the investment that has already been made would be wasted, and I am sure that the Minister of Finance and Personnel would not agree with wasting resources in such a way, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr McElduff: Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don méid atá ráite ag Dominic Ó Brollacháin. I agree 100% with Mr Bradley’s point. I am pleased that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure is in the Chamber to hear that very important message.
The Executive should take every opportunity, in this Budget and in the coming times, to demonstrate support for the building trade and the construction industry. We know about the policy climate created by PPS 14, and that chartered surveyors are saying that projects are being delayed. We know that social housing must be delivered. Nevertheless, the Executive and the Minister of Finance and Personnel must hear those messages.
I recently spoke in the Chamber to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who said that he hoped that the Minister of Finance and Personnel would hear the same message. I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to take particular cognisance of petrol retailers in communities on this side of the border, who have had their businesses disadvantaged by proximity to petrol retailers on the other side of the border. Those businesses have been decimated over many decades by that situation, and, I am sure, other factors that Members may choose to draw to my attention. However, I ask the Minister to examine Varney II in the near future in order to find opportunities to introduce compensatory measures for those businesses.
This is a four-party Budget, produced by a four-party Executive. It is good work, as has already been said by the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, Mitchel McLaughlin. We have arrived at the Budget allocation, the Programme for Government and the investment strategy. However, there is no escaping the reality that major obstacles to delivery by the Executive remain. One of those obstacles is the fact that taxation and public expenditure policy are still set in London. We should not keep pushing that issue further down the road. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr Simpson: This has been an interesting debate over the past few hours. I was going to say that it was an intelligent debate, but having heard some of the comments that have been made by Members from some parties, I have to wonder.
A Member: You are talking about the Alliance Party.
Mr Simpson: I am looking at the Alliance Party. Many years ago, there used to be an old preacher in Northern Ireland called W P Nicholson, who, when he heard people talking nonsense, would say that it was “tripe with a capital T”. Well, I have listened to some tripe with a capital T in this Chamber today.
Naively, I thought more of the Alliance Party because I understand that some of its Members come from a business background. I thought that they at least would have had some intelligent ideas on taxation, and, in particular, on industrial derating. However, we live day by day, and we are surprised many times. That is the way it goes.
I support the Budget, which is innovative and can only be good for Northern Ireland. A number of messages must be sent out from this Chamber. First, the SDLP’s behaviour should be condemned over and over again.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Simpson: The Trimble/Mallon Assembly was quite some time ago — in fact, I can scarcely remember the two individuals in question. However, they tell me that they once ran the Assembly. At that time, the DUP Ministers took up their ministerial positions, but they acted against the Executive. Why did they do that? Why did the DUP embark on that course of action? There was one fundamental reason: the party opposed the arrangements that were then in place; it campaigned and issued policy documents against them, and it suggested alternative arrangements.
Mr Durkan: Now the DUP operates those same arrangements.
Mr Simpson: Hold on a wee second; I know that it is beginning to hurt.
Mr Storey: They think that they won the election.
Mr Simpson: Yes, that is exactly right.
However, the same cannot be said of the SDLP; its Members support the current arrangements; they have campaigned and electioneered in favour of them, and they have spoken and written in favour of them. They rallied behind the Minister for Social Development as she sought greater funding to carry out her work in the Executive.
Yet, in an entirely selfish, hypocritical manoeuvre, SDLP Members shafted their own Minister. They left her high and dry, letting her go through one Lobby in favour of the PFG while they went through the other Lobby to cast votes to oppose her actions. Shame on the SDLP. Such behaviour — “Durkanomics” — [Laughter.] — does not even have the safety net of political gain. The SDLP is a party in decline whose members desperately hope that Bertie Ahern will take time off to save not only his own political bacon but theirs too.
Lord Morrow: He cannot do both.
Mr Simpson: No, he cannot.
The Budget ought to be welcomed as a good beginning on the journey towards a better future. It confirms the freeze on rates over three years and that industrial rates will be capped at 30%; it also addresses the priority given to the economy by the Programme for Government. The Executive have increased allocations to the Department for Employment and Learning by some 35%, which is very welcome. Furthermore, DETI has received another 21% increase in funding.
The Budget also provides for the largest ever allocations for capital investment in new public-sector infrastructure — more than £2 billion a year by 2010 and 2011. That will help to promote a programme of investment in hospitals, schools, housing, roads, public transport and other public services. Northern Ireland must move forwards towards a more private-sector-led economy if it is to prosper and compete in future. Dependence on the public sector is now an obstacle to our development. In today’s economic climate, Government or Assembly intervention can have only a limited influence on the economy.
Alongside that, however, the Assembly will be required to deliver infrastructure, promote tolerance, health and well-being, advance environmental issues, and create excellent and efficient public services.
I am pleased that a funding increase has been allocated to Margaret Richie, because all Members of the House have been lobbied many, many times on social and affordable housing. The lack of such housing has created major difficulties, and it is good to see that her Department’s budget has been increased.
The additional money for the Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey, is most welcome. It is rumoured that when Michael McGimpsey heard the news that his budget was to be substantially increased — and I emphasise that it is only a rumour — he almost smiled. I know that Members may find that hard to believe. However, no paparazzi were there to take a photograph, and, perhaps, that is a malicious rumour that should not be repeated.
I welcome the additional funds that have been announced in the Budget. The Department of the Environment will receive additional funding of £103,000 over the next three years to contribute to the delivery of the Queen’s University-led omnivore project, which seeks to develop a prototype engine that will optimise the combustion of a range of biofuels and fossil fuels.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will receive an additional £5 million for the creative industries seed fund.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will receive an additional £14 million to fund a range of projects, including the promotion of investment and innovation and research.
The Department for Employment and Learning will receive an additional £40 million over the next three years to fund various projects.
Northern Ireland still has a long way to go, and there are outstanding issues to be tackled. The actions of the SDLP in the past 24 hours have again brought to light the need to move towards a more normal system of Government and away from the current model — the deficiencies of which have been highlighted in the Assembly this week.
Notwithstanding those issues, the Budget, coupled with —
Mr Durkan: Will the Member give way?
Mr Simpson: I am about to finish.
The Budget, coupled with the Programme for Government, affords the Assembly an opportunity to set its sails.
Mr Durkan: Will the Member address the fact that he and his colleagues, including the Finance Minister, regularly vote against the Westminster Budget, which includes the allocation of public expenditure here? Doing so is not perceived as irresponsible, but as good democratic practice.
Mr Simpson: The difference, as the Finance Minister said, is that the DUP does not sit in the Cabinet at Westminster.
Mr Durkan: The Westminster Budget includes allocations for here.
Mr Simpson: The Budget will start Northern Ireland off on a good footing, and Members can look forward to a better future for the Province.
Mr Moutray: I join my party colleagues in paying tribute to the Minister of Finance and Personnel for delivering to the House and the Province a momentous, forward-thinking and business-led Budget. Remarkably, it is the first Budget to emanate from the House in almost 40 years. As such, the Budget is a political landmark for the Province, and it will aid in providing a peaceful, prosperous and fair society today, tomorrow and in the years that lie ahead.
Members have witnessed a great milestone in local politics: the Budget will afford us, as elected representatives, the opportunity to deliver a better quality of life for those who live and work in Northern Ireland.
For many years, this Province suffered as a result of the stagnation that was brought about by 30 years of terrorist violence and, indeed, direct rule. Therefore, the Budget places Northern Ireland’s destiny in our hands. It places in our hands the building blocks with which a better and brighter future can be achieved.
I welcome the fact that the Budget has been accepted unanimously and endorsed by the four Executive parties. The Budget sets out in great detail the spending plans for the Departments over the next number of years. Those plans include the necessary expansion of the infrastructure to satisfy modern investment; increasing the educational attainment of young people; reducing poverty; increasing economic activity; protecting our environment; reducing the number of deaths on our roads; and reducing treatment waiting times for patients. Those are, without doubt, real issues that have affected and will continue to affect everyone in their daily lives.
The Budget enables us, as locally elected representatives, to allocate the resources to tackle those issues at first-hand. The Budget’s primary focus is on economic growth, clearly demonstrating the Executive’s long-term commitment to building a better future for the people of Northern Ireland. That focus also aligns with the priorities that have been identified in the Programme for Government and investment strategy. Those are to grow a dynamic, innovative economy; to promote tolerance, inclusion, health and well-being; to build and invest in infrastructure; to deliver modern, high-quality and efficient public services; and to protect and enhance our environment and natural resources.
Ultimately, those three documents will work together to achieve the overarching aim of building a strong and competitive Northern Ireland economy that will, in due course, reduce and eradicate poverty and social exclusion.
I particularly welcome the Budget’s efforts to implement the investment strategy for Northern Ireland to improve infrastructure; refocus business-support measures on exports; implement the skills strategy and the FE Means Business strategy to improve individuals’ skills; implement the regional innovation strategy; and enhance linkages between the education and business sectors. All those will contribute to the Executive’s economic vision’s being realised.
I welcome the Finance Minister’s additional allocations for mental-health provision and for those with learning disabilities, in particular, and for youth and library services, and, indeed, social housing. That could not have been boasted about when we were subject to direct rule policies.
The real challenge now is for each Minister to take responsibility for administering those policies and ensuring that the Executive are efficient. The 3% efficiency-savings targets that have been set are a challenge for each Department. My plea is that the Departments endeavour to exceed that target in order to provide additional spending power.
I am proud to be a Member of an Assembly that, ultimately, through this Budget, has displayed a vision for Northern Ireland. The Budget identifies the real needs that exist in society, and notes the resources that are available to tackle those needs. It will enable us to deliver, which is what we were democratically elected to do.
The Budget gives value for money for every pound that is spent. However, we cannot enter this process of administration and roll it out while wearing rose-tinted glasses. We must recognise the challenges and the need for us, as elected representatives, to embrace them and prove that devolution can make a real difference to people’s lives.
By tabling amendments yesterday and today, the SDLP has demonstrated its backward-looking vision. I question whether there are divisions in that party, given that the Minister for Social Development voted for the Programme for Government, while her party colleagues voted against it. It appears that Margaret Ritchie’s party colleagues are unable to support her in her Executive decision.
Unlike the SDLP and the Alliance Party, I, along with members of my party, endorse and agree to the finely tuned, well-balanced and meticulously documented Budget that the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Executive have brought to the House. I support the motion.
Mr K Robinson: I was looking for evidence in the Budget of specific funding for the massive educational changes that the Minister of Education has proposed and that are centred on her new vision that transfer should occur at the age of 14.
It is clear that a restructuring of education, entailing the creation of schools for 11- to 14-year-olds and 14-to 19-year-olds, is so far-reaching that it is bound to involve considerable expenditure on new buildings, staff training, support costs for major curriculum change, and the redesign of existing buildings.
Inevitably, such a far-reaching process will involve a fundamental look at the entire schools estate in Northern Ireland. In fact, I cannot see how any such process would be able to avoid a major rationalisation process as well. How can we evade the inevitable question in the face of such massive changes? How can we continue to operate several distinct school systems — the state system, a maintained system, an integrated system, and an Irish-medium system? Surely we have an opportunity here to pursue a shared future for all.
Try as I might to find it, however, there was no mention of additional funding for such a project in the educational provisions in the Budget. That is a three-year spending programme; therefore, there is no money for such a programme for at least three years. How can that be?
The Minister of Education promised that selection would end by the year 2009, which is just a year away. I heard that the Minister reckoned that her proposals were, in the main, cost-neutral. How can that be? Unless, of course, her proposals involve the rationalisation of her current four-fold system, with the introduction of a universal, one-size-fits-all system of geographically based schools, with postcode-selection processes, catering for an 11- to 14- year-old and a 14- to 19-year-old split. The sale of redundant school buildings might then be used to generate the capital assets to fund the massive costs of such a radical restructuring of the school system that selection at 14 would inevitably entail.
The absence of such earmarked funding in the Budget indicates either that what the Minister said will happen simply will not happen, or that there is another way of funding her proposals, outside the ordinary constraints of the block grant.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel said in his Budget statement:
“The task force report identified a range of potential opportunities to reinvest the proceeds of up to £295 million of asset disposals over the next three years of the Budget period. Further work remains to be done to analyse the scope and feasibility of those potential disposals … and our capacity to reinvest these proceeds.” — [Offical Report, Bound Volume 26, p317, col 1].
It is unclear whether those disposals have already been factored into the new Budget allocations announced last Tuesday. Perhaps the Minister will let Members know, and inform us whether he intends to put additional funds into the Department of Education’s budget to finance any such major restructuring of the schools, as the Minister of Education contemplates.
In purely educational terms, the Budget is a relatively modest document. All that is evident from the budgetary figures is that the Executive have allocated an additional £3 million for next year followed by a further £5 million in each of the two following years. That modest additional funding will provide for an increase in the level of resource funding available for youth services each year over the three-year Budget period.
However, Youth Service personnel say that that equals a standstill allocation to the youth sector, which will be a disappointment to all those who put so much into working with our young, and our — sometimes disaffected — youth.
The education targets in the Programme for Government that are funded by the Budget are similarly conservative. The aspiration is that by 2015, 80% of the working population will be qualified to GCSE level or equivalent. Since the current figure of people with no qualifications is 21% in Northern Ireland, even the new targets are very conservative.
At the moment, a quarter of our adult population has poor literacy and numeracy levels, and, every year, 4,000 people reach the age of 16 without achieving a basic English or Maths qualification. The Department for Employment and Learning should not have to do remedial work for the Department of Education. That is important
It may be worth restating that children do not fail at 11 years of age; rather, the system fails many of them in their early years.
I welcome the large-scale investment in further education. That investment will support the Further Education Means Business strategy and emphasises the fact that further education colleges will be the engines of economic growth.
We cannot rely on the UK Exchequer or Europe to pay our way. The economic focus in the Department for Employment and Learning’s budget is a precursor to eradicating underachievement, unemployment and eventually, I hope, poverty. I also welcome the provision in the Programme for Government for an annual review. That represents not only a milestone in the progress towards targets but will build in the capacity for adjustment to changing circumstances.
The Department for Employment and Learning recognises that there is a clear link between the levels of spending on research and development and the levels of innovation in new products, economic growth, prosperity and employment. Hitherto, Northern Ireland has had a mixed record on R&D, although both Queen’s University and the University of Ulster are world leaders in their particular research fields. Sadly, however, if one adds up the total spend on R&D in Northern Ireland, it comes to about 1% of gross domestic product, while other industrial economies average between 2% and 3%.
I commend Sir Reg Empey, the Minister for Employment and Learning, for his winning the largest share of the funds for innovation — some £40 million out of £90 million. Those moneys are critical, because they make it possible to fund 300 new PhD studentships, which will be in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is to be hoped that those new studentships will lead to positive spin-offs for our regional economy, which may eventually come to resemble the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina or the Silicon Valley in California. A pool of world-class research students should provide a future magnet for foreign direct investment.
Finally, I thank the Minister for his additional allocations, totalling £2 million, to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for 2008-09. Those allocations have been made in response to specific issues that were raised during the public consultation on the draft Budget, and they are very welcome.
Similarly, I acknowledge an additional £5 million that has been allocated to the Department for its creativity seed fund, which is important if creative potential and innovation are to be unlocked. The connection between themes that have not been exploited previously is vital if we are to source new industry that is based on creativity and design. We need to look closely at the performance of that fund to see whether still more volume and range can be achieved as a result of the additional funding.
However, I have grave concerns about funding for sports and the arts, the spending on which still lags behind every other UK region, even though both are potentially key generators of economic income.
It is good for the House and for Northern Ireland that the Assembly has now turned to the real business of government. I am pleased that yesterday’s motion on the Programme for Government and the investment strategy was amended to include an Ulster Unionist amendment that sought to create a process of ongoing review for the Programme for Government. The Programme for Government and the Budget are two sides of the one coin, so, in light of ongoing experience, the potential exists for flexibility and responsiveness in the allocations. I support the Budget proposals.
Mr McCausland: I support the Budget, which is the product of a four-party coalition, even if one of those parties seems to try to suggest that it is not part of that coalition and, therefore, is not in some way responsible for the Budget that emerged from that coalition. It seems that that party is content to live in a state of delusion.
I shall concentrate on the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, which, relative to some of the larger Departments, is small. Nevertheless, it is a significant Department, because sport, culture, arts, libraries and museums matter to many people. They affect the quality of life of people in Northern Ireland, and many people feel passionately about them.
Several Members have already said that they would like more money to be spent in some of those areas, and everyone in the House shares that view. However, the Executive have a finite amount of money. The SDLP’s problem in demanding more money is that it cannot say where that money should be taken from. Does it want the money to be taken from social development, health, education or some other area?
The Alliance Party can tell the House where it wants the money to be taken from: it wants to take it from my pocket and from the pockets of every person in Northern Ireland. That is interesting, because the Alliance Party has vanished from my constituency. We have not seen any of its members, and they have not represented anyone there, for a long time. If that party continues in its present way, it will probably disappear from the rest of Northern Ireland in the not too distant future. On hearing that the Alliance Party’s view is that everybody should pay much more, many people might decide that they do not want to support it.
Libraries and museums are major areas of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s expenditure. They constitute half of the Department’s total budget, with 30% going to libraries and 20% going to museums.
The North/South Language Body was mentioned earlier in the debate; I am pleased to see that the funding for that is rising from £6·1 million this year to £7·4 million over the period of the Budget. Significant funding is built into that for the Ulster-Scots Agency, which I welcome. Sadly, over the years, that agency has suffered from serious underfunding, stretching back to the formation of the language body and the two agencies within it. That serious underfunding has created difficulties for the Ulster-Scots language community and for the wider community that is interested in Ulster-Scots culture. The allocation goes some way towards redressing the shortfall that we have inherited from the period of direct rule and earlier. The money will be used well, and many good projects will benefit from it, right across Northern Ireland.
Sport is one of those issues that has benefits not just in the enjoyment that it creates, but in its impact on health. Culture, sport, libraries and museums all have an impact on tourism. I am glad that the Budget points to the clear links between those areas in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Executive priorities of growing a dynamic, innovative economy; promoting tolerance, inclusion and well-being; investing in infrastructure; and delivering modern, high-quality, efficient public services. Sport and culture are important in providing a better quality of life, and they also have an impact right across Government priorities.
Tourism is a major growth area in the economy, and cultural tourism has been identified as a core area for growth. I welcome the fact that even Tourism Ireland has finally recognised in recent months that —
Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that Ulster Scots is an important growth area for cultural tourism? In my constituency, Strangford, the rebirth of Ulster Scots has been a big talking point with regard to cultural tourism in the area.
Mr McCausland: I thank the Member for his comments. I was about to say that Tourism Ireland has identified the Scotch-Irish market in America as a wonderful opportunity for promoting tourism. I am sure that when the Scotch-Irish come here, they will want to visit Strangford and the Ards Peninsula, which is part of the Ulster-Scots heartland.
Mr Shannon: I will be their guide.
Mr McCausland: We do not want to go too far, please.
There is recognition here of a potential tourist market that remains untapped. For so long, Tourism Ireland has concentrated solely on the Irish-American market. The other 20 million Americans whose roots are here on this island, and particularly the northern part of the island — well, that Scotch-Irish market has now been identified. The opportunity is there for us to grow our tourism through that.
I welcome that £32·5 million is to be made available for arts and cultural infrastructure. In respect of Belfast, mention is made of the Metropolitan Arts Centre in the Cathedral Quarter, and the new Lyric Theatre, which is to be built in the south of the city. I could not miss the opportunity to commend Belfast City Council for spending so much on the arts — of all Northern Ireland’s local councils, it spends the most on the arts. It has certainly stepped up to the mark in respect of the aforementioned projects, and it will be investing in them.
After consultation, an extra £1·5 million has been made available for expenditure in the arts sector. That demonstrates that the Executive have been responsive to the opinions that they heard during consultation. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is investing £146 million to support the delivery of the draft Northern Ireland strategy for sport and physical recreation for 2007-2017. The intention is that by 2011, that investment will have stopped the decline of adult participation in sport and physical recreation. That decline is to the detriment of the health and well-being of the people of Northern Ireland, and that must be reversed. The investment is being made to reverse that decline.
I mentioned cultural tourism — that must be related to our libraries, which, as has been noted already, account for 30% of the Department’s budget. If we want to increase numbers, we need to increase and grow our cultural product so that when folk come here, there are more things for them to do. That will encourage them to stay longer, and to come back. When they are here, it will encourage them to visit more parts of Northern Ireland.
Investment is important in museums because, as well as the four museum sites that constitute the National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland, the 31 independent museums must be considered. The key point is that through tourism, such investment will be for the benefit of the economy as a whole, not just for the benefit of our own folk.
Finally, I note that the aforementioned issues tie in with the theme that is embedded in the Programme for Government — a shared and better future. If we are to have a better future for our society, it has to be a shared future, and a central element in that is cultural diversity. Another aspect must be the interdependence and relationships between different cultural traditions.
By developing our cultural infrastructure, and by growing the cultural capital for today and tomorrow, we are contributing to a shared future for Northern Ireland, and that is something that I hope that everyone would welcome.
Mr B Wilson: I welcome the opportunity to give the Green Party’s views on the Budget.
The Budget, as a whole, is not bad, given the financial restrictions that the Executive placed on themselves. I welcome the fact that some of the criticisms that were made in the Assembly have been taken into account by the Minister of Finance and Personnel. I agree with his emphasis on entrepreneurship, economic development and increasing skills. Those are essential for the future of our economy. However, there are major issues that have been ignored by the Budget, and I, therefore, intend to oppose it.
Some Members have suggested that it is wrong to criticise the Executive, and that anyone who does so is being negative and trying to destabilise devolved Government. I do not subscribe to that view. I believe that our most important role as MLAs is to scrutinise all Executive decisions and to highlight those with which we disagree. Neither the Executive nor this Budget are above criticism. In addition to the failure of the Budget to take a shared future into account, it gets no marks for failing to address environmental issues, as Mr Gardiner has pointed out.
The Executive claim to be concerned about climate change, but the policies that they will implement will have a detrimental impact on the environment. They claim to be green, and to support sustainability, but there is nothing in the Budget to substantiate those claims. In fact, all the evidence is to the contrary — particularly with the abolition of the Reconnect grants to support small, renewable energy systems, and the reduction of the percentage of the Department for Regional Development’s budget for public transport. That, together with the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s recent decision to change building regulations to state that the inclusion of renewables in new buildings is no longer mandatory, is a total negation of the Executive’s claim to support sustainability.
The decision to abolish the Reconnect grants, which were first introduced by Peter Hain, and the change in the building regulations sound the death knell for many small businesses in Northern Ireland.
Over the past two years, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) has encouraged firms to develop skills in the installation of new renewable-energy systems. Their staff were encouraged to take courses at the Renewable Energy Installer Academy, funded by DETI, and more than 800 installers completed those courses. An industry based on the new technology was evolving; students were developing skills that were increasingly in demand, North and South. However, that developing industry depended on the demand for microgeneration systems. The end of Reconnect grants and the Finance Minister’s decision on building regulations have destroyed that demand, and the installers, rightly, feel betrayed.
Recently, I attended a meeting in Downpatrick, at which the installers expressed great anger at those decisions. They argued that they had been let down by the Government and felt that they had wasted time and money in acquiring those skills only to find that there was no demand for them. Some of the installers even stated that they would be forced out of business if Reconnect grants or similar support are not introduced immediately; others said that they would have to seek work in the Republic, where such grants are available and extremely popular.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel’s decision runs contrary to his claim to grow our indigenous private sector. Northern Ireland is losing small businesses that could develop into much larger ones. It is a betrayal of everyone involved in the scheme. I appeal to the Minister to find some way of supporting the installers. We cannot afford to lose a large number of small businesses that are at the cutting edge of technology.
That decision is at best short-sighted, particularly in the light of last week’s proposals by the European Commission, which will increase targets for the use of renewable energy. The Irish Government recently increased grants for microgeneration systems, and local authorities in GB are strengthening building regulations to require greater energy efficiency in new buildings. While others promote renewable energy, the Executive are discouraging the uptake of renewable systems.
My other concern relates to the Health Service. As a former member of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board, I was concerned about the allocation for hospital services in the draft Budget. I welcome the extra £10 million, but it falls considerably short of what is needed, according to the Bamford Review.
As I pointed out in the debate on the draft Budget, an increase in the health budget of 2·6% is the lowest for more than 10 years. That percentage increase is equivalent to a freezing of the health budget when one considers demographic pressures and that Health Service inflation is higher than ordinary inflation. Compared to an increase of 4% in real terms in England, a freeze is unacceptable, particularly when one considers the length of trolley waits in Northern Ireland and other problems that are considerably worse than in England.
The differential in expenditure per head between Northern Ireland and England has reduced significantly in recent years. A recent study showed that, taking into account age profile, deprivation levels and market forces, the Health Service in Northern Ireland requires 10% more resources per head than in England due to its higher need. The present differential is about 4%, and the proposals for 2008-09 will erode the differential completely.
The additional money in the revised Budget, now agreed for the comprehensive spending review (CSR) period, is welcome. However, according to Professor Appleby it falls far short of what is needed — a point that he made in his report to the Department of Finance and Personnel in 2005 and which he repeated in his evidence to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
The latest increase raises our real-terms health budget by less than 2%, compared to the previous 1·1% — and is still a long way short of England’s new money of 3·7% over the next three years. Efficiency and productivity improvements of 3% per annum have already been factored in, and there is simply no scope for achieving further savings except through closing services and hospitals.
The revised Budget sets out a wish list of additional services. Last week, Members were informed about all the extra services that were going to be provided, but there was no indication of where the resources for any of those programmes would be coming from. The wish list is totally unrealistic.
As a member of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board, I recall that we had great difficulty in achieving efficiency savings of 1%. Therefore, it is over-optimistic to assume that efficiency savings of 3% are achievable. Many Members have said that such savings can be made, but they have not told us what those savings would mean in real terms, or what is going to happen. Given that the NHS is labour intensive, it will mean job losses; in fact, thousands of job losses — and it will be difficult to explain to overworked nurses and overworked doctors, patients, and all those who are on waiting lists why we are getting rid of a lot of staff.
Much of the savings and reorganisations that are supposed to pay for the new services are already being made in the present financial year, by reducing the number of health trusts from 18 to five. Therefore, where will the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety find the money to bring Northern Ireland into line with access targets and waiting times in England?
Professor Appleby showed that there is a need for 7% higher spending on health in Northern Ireland, based on need, if we are to enjoy similar standards of care as those in England. Yet, last week, he identified a £500 million shortfall in health spending over the CSR period. Therefore, not only are we going to have lower standards of care, the gap between entitlements and expectations in Northern Ireland compared to those in England will continue to widen. Access targets and waiting times here will simply not match English levels in the foreseeable future.
Mr Adams: Maith thú, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Go raibh míle maith agat. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Tionól agus go háirithe leis an Aire. I commend the Executive, and the Minister of Finance and Personnel, in particular, on the Budget.
The Executive faced an enormous challenge in putting together the Programme for Government, the Budget, and the investment package. As other Members have noted, the issues that needed to be tackled included: significantly high levels of disadvantage and poverty in many urban and rural areas; serious underfunding in health and education services; the environment; cultural rights; infrastructure; the crisis in the agriculture industry and economy; housing provision in the community and voluntary sector, and many other issues.
The fact that we have had to work within an inadequate block grant from the British Government exacerbates the situation. It is a significant problem that taxation and public expenditure policies are established in London, as is our existence on the edge of British Exchequer concerns.
I want to address my remarks to the Members on the benches opposite. Lack of economic sovereignty is something that the Assembly, and unionist representatives in particular, will have to face up to. That is the difficult context in which the Budget was produced.
Sinn Féin Members have stated their concerns about some aspects of the Budget, including the failure — I would say refusal — of the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to seek adequate funding for the Irish language. However, given the limitations imposed on the available funding and the conflicting demands placed upon the Budget, advances have been made, especially in the commitments underpinning the Programme for Government, the Budget, and the investment strategy, as well as the commitments to funding levels, and the underlying strategy governing all of those. That strategy — the equality impact assessment process — is the key element in the proper operation of the equality mechanisms.
However, we need to monitor the Programme for Government, the Budget, and the investment strategy constantly and be ready to redirect resources if necessary. More especially, the Executive and the Assembly need to present the British Government with a united demand for greater fiscal independence and an increase in the block grant, if we are to deliver high-quality public services and have a bigger, better, more effective, more efficient and prosperous economy.
Why should a British Chancellor worry about Ballymena, east Belfast or any of the areas that Members represent?
I am convinced that sustainable social and economic progress in the region will occur only in the context of a single-island economy. Regardless of other differences that exist among parties, none of them underestimates the potential for greater prosperity that the all-Ireland political institutions, agencies and bodies can bring in times ahead. All the parties have acknowledged that fact. That potential must be exploited to the full.
Finally, I wish to comment briefly on yesterday’s decision by the SDLP to vote against the Programme for Government. That is evidence of a party that is totally lost, bewildered and confused. The fact is that the SDLP believed that the institutions would not be re-established. It fought the Assembly elections on that pretext. Until recently, its entire political position was predicated on the belief that the DUP and Sinn Féin were the “problem parties”. That was its mantra. The SDLP leader stood in the middle of a busy road with a large lollipop, asserting that a vote for the SDLP was the way to stop the DUP, while Sinn Féin went about the business of trying to get the institutions back in place.
Since the institutions have been re-established, the SDLP leadership has been unable to come to terms with that new reality, with the results of the last Assembly election or with the new political dispensation. If I were them — and I am not, thankfully — I would take good advice from those who believe that one must follow the will of the people. Yesterday’s SDLP decision was ad hoc; it was on the whim of the party’s leaders. Members saw their hasty exit from the Chamber during the debate on the Programme for Government when their amendment was not accepted; and their fit of pique when the UUP amendment was accepted. Therefore, the SDLP position is not a considered one.
Mr Durkan: Will the Member give way?
Mr Adams: No, sir.
The logic of that hasty decision is that it appears that the party will also vote against the Budget. How can a party in the Executive — a party that is supposedly committed to the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation — vote in favour of the Programme for Government, Budget and investment strategy one week, and against them the next? How can it vote for those measures in one forum, and against them in another? That does not make sense. Mark Durkan knows that. I have listened to the SDLP’s efforts throughout the debate. The party has failed to provide a logical or rational argument to support its absurd position.
No one should forget — my party certainly does not — that the SDLP leader, along with David Trimble and the UUP, negotiated the reinvestment and reform initiative — the ultimate in Thatcherite policy.
Mr Durkan: Will the Member give way?
Mr Adams: I will not give way.
That policy opened the door to British Government attempts to privatise water services, which have now, thankfully, been ruled out by Minister Conor Murphy. Nor should anyone forget that an SDLP Minister of Finance tried to push through legislation on the strategic investment body — the vehicle for PFI, PPP and privatisation. Is that social or democratic?
Of course, the SDLP has the right to oppose the Budget. No one denies it that right. However, it is dishonest for that party to oppose and support the Budget at the same time, and — here is the rub — then pretend that it is doing so on principle. Sin é, a chara. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr McFarland: I am saddened that the Budget is overshadowed by the absence of the deal-breaking peace dividend — that far-famed £1 billion package, which the DUP did not deliver.
Budget time encourages me to recall two previous Budgets and the DUP’s wailing and gnashing of teeth. In 2000, I recall that Sammy Wilson urged Members to vote for an amendment to cut the North/South bodies budget by 50% in order to:
“save livelihoods and put bread on the tables”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 7, p186, col 2].
I offer a further quotation from the Hansard report, in which Minister Dodds said:
“There are those who say that we should not get too exercised about expenditure in the all-Ireland dimension of the Belfast Agreement. Perhaps they can justify this to their constituents: for every million pounds spent on the all-Ireland political dimensions of the Belfast Agreement, 200 extra heart operations could be carried out, 25 houses might be built for the homeless, or 1,000 homes could be adapted for disabled people.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 7, p157, col 2].
He further states:
“For a million pounds we could put central heating in 300 family homes. Look at fuel poverty: 170,000 homes in Northern Ireland still do not have adequate heating.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 7, p157, col 2].
In the following year, Lord Morrow said that £1·2 million should be taken off the North/South bodies budget and put into the warm homes scheme. This year, now that the DUP is in Government, is there a demand for a reduction in the North/South element of the Budget? There is not. What a difference an election makes to the DUP position on “North/Southery”, as Peter Robinson described it.
During the debate, Mr Alban Maginness referred to the DUP’s intention, in 2000-01, to destroy the Executive. However, he did not recall that when a single vote would have torpedoed the Budget and the Executive, the DUP Members, sadly, bottled-out and made themselves scarce, which ensured the survival of the First Assembly and the Belfast Agreement. That is amazing.
The Budget targets concern me. Some are ambitious, and others are impossible — for example, the ending of child poverty by 2012. There is a tendency, as each year ends, to concentrate on the future and the next Budget. Often, little attention is paid to whether the targets for the current year have been met. Will the Finance Minister assure us that, as the financial year ends in March, the success, or lack of it, in achieving the targets this year will encourage him to examine whether the targets for the coming year are genuine and whether, perhaps, the Budget needs to be readjusted?
Budget delivery depends on a 3% efficiency saving. In recent years, those types of targets have been missed by 50%. If that figure is applied to the Budget for the coming year, the Minister will find that he is £1·5 billion short in his Budget. I welcome the setting-up of the performance efficiency delivery unit. Ministers should be encouraged to accept the help of that unit. Its involvement in challenging present practices and identifying savings will probably allow Ministers, in all Departments, to take credit for the easy decisions while blaming the unit for the difficult ones. By the end of the year we may be on the way to achieving those efficiencies.
I echo the call for the reform of the Planning Service to take place quickly. How can we encourage businesses to locate here when the building of their new premises may be delayed by up to two years under the present planning process? The Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee examined the current system for Minister Dodds, and his stewardship of the Giant’s Causeway landmark project. The Department of Trade, Enterprise and Investment has been allocated a budget of £21 million to support that particular venture. I hope that funding will be available to support the new venture that is being developed by the National Trust.
In conclusion, the UUP supports the Budget. However, we have pointed out that there must be adjustments as confusion on policies emerges — for example, the lack of clarity on the water rates issue. We will monitor that and act in the best interests of our constituents. I support the Budget.
Mr Speaker: I remind Members that both winding-up speeches are limited to five minutes each.
Mr Attwood: I thank Members for their contributions to the debate. I also thank, in particular, those Members — across all of the parties in the Chamber — who put on record the Budget’s gaps, flaws and fault lines.
If the speeches and comments that have been made about sports and arts, regional development, education, and the environment are joined up, it is clear that the gloss has gone off Peter Robinson’s first Budget — no matter how parties vote this evening. The flaws and fault lines are now on record.
I particularly applaud some of the contributions on the Budget, including that of the Sinn Féin president, both in the Chamber and in the comments that he has made to the media. He said that the SDLP’s approach has displayed:
“a lack of considered and consistent leadership”
Mr Adams: That is correct.
Mr Attwood: Let us examine the record of his party, which joined the Policing Board after it said that it would not do so until Special Branch had been disbanded. Sinn Féin said that it wanted MI5 out of Northern Ireland, and then it agreed to a deeper and bigger role for MI5 in Northern Ireland. Less than a year ago, Sinn Féin gave a manifesto commitment to:
“Ringfence a meaningful proportion of the annual budget for programmes aimed at tackling economic inequality and poverty.”
That commitment has been airbrushed out of the Budget, as has Sinn Féin’s commitment to try to secure 5,000 new units of housing.
When Margaret Ritchie had to challenge Peter Robinson on her Budget line on housing, Sinn Féin said that she should stop whingeing. Where is Sinn Féin’s manifesto commitment — a deal that was done with the electorate less than a year ago — that said that it would work to provide an increased financial support package for social economy projects? That commitment was forgotten; it is nowhere to be seen in Peter Robinson’s first Budget. I thank Mr Adams; the words that came from his mouth rang hollow and have been proven false.
The SDLP has been advised to go with the flow, so let us consider what that means. It means that the children’s fund no longer exists; a cross-cutting strategy to deal with children’s issues in the North has been abandoned. Going with the flow compounds the confusion around the 11-plus with financial uncertainty. There is no Budget line whatsoever for the biggest reform of the education system for decades. Let us go with the Sinn Féin flow, which fails to provide one word or one pound of clarity on the single biggest issue that has concerned the electorate over the past year — water charges. Let us go with the flow of a Budget that has no Budget line for an anti-poverty strategy. Let other parties go with the flow; the SDLP will go with its manifesto pledges and with its responsibility to the electorate. It will not go along with having its eye wiped by a Finance Minister who clearly has the measure of Sinn Féin in Government and Sinn Féin Ministers.
Gerry Adams berated the SDLP for voting down the Budget in the Assembly but for voting in favour of it in the Executive. He asked how that could be reconciled. In case Mr Adams has forgotten, it can be reconciled because Mr Adams negotiated a facility for that with the DUP in the St Andrews and pre-St Andrews talks. Before St Andrews and as far back as the negotiations at Leeds Castle, Mark Durkan advised Peter Robinson that, because of the ministerial code, a Minister would be compelled to vote for the Budget, but that did not compel the party to do so. If Mr Adams fails to understand what the SDLP is doing, he should ask his advisers because he signed up to that facility.
Mr Ford: Given the number of occasions on which a shared future and the cost of division have been referred to, I must start with that.
I want to address a point that was made by the Finance Minister, and Trevor Lunn’s response to it. I welcome the fact that — unlike the First Minister — the Finance Minister has indicated that he is prepared to engage seriously with us on the issues. We will happily take up his offer of a meeting, because the Budget is too important to be simply dismissed with the type of rhetoric that we hear in the Chamber.
There have been two types of speeches during the debate — logical ones and illogical ones. There have been two types of opposition in the Chamber — a coherent one and an incoherent one. Although I disagreed with many of the speeches, at least some logical speeches were made by Members on the DUP Benches. In all other parts of the Chamber — bar this small corner — Members stood up and expressed their opposition to the Budget and the Programme for Government. However, they then indicated their intention to vote for it. Tonight, the SDLP may establish where it stands on the issue, but where will the Sinn Féin and Ulster Unionist Members who have expressed opposition stand on the issue when it comes to the vote?
It seems that Sinn Féin has not swallowed the Finance Minister’s policies. There was some traditional, old-fashioned, Marxist rhetoric from all manner of places. I was particularly interested when Mitchel McLaughlin complained about PFIs. There was a degree of irony in his saying that because the former Minister of Education — the deputy First Minister — was sitting beside him at the time, and he was the most principled supporter of PFIs. I do not know how Mitchel McLaughlin could possibly have said that, but then Gerry Adams repeated exactly the same points. We talk about coherence within parties, but there are clearly major problems in Sinn Féin accepting its responsibilities in Government, as opposed to its old-fashioned rhetoric.
Peter Weir is not in his place, but he took an interesting line when he asked what we would do about school closures. The answer is simple: school closures are happening anyway, and they are happening in an incoherent way, because there is no area-based planning. My colleagues have been prepared to take logical stances, when necessary, to close unpopular schools, including a so-called integrated school in the constituency of North Down, where we took the realistic and honest solution. Therefore, we do not need Peter Weir to give us lessons on that issue.
Simon Hamilton complained about funding for Irish-language schools. I refer him to objective 4 of public service agreement 10 in the Programme for Government, which he voted for yesterday — and I did not — which gives a clear commitment to funding Irish-medium education. Therefore, if the Member is going to point the finger, he should remember that there are three fingers pointing back at him.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
There is no realistic method for dealing with the fundamental issue of education reform in the Programme for Government. There is nothing in the Budget to deal with the costs, which have been highlighted in different corners of the Chamber, and the importance of education reform. How on earth will necessary reforms be carried through if they are not mentioned in the Budget?
Health funding is rising, but it is still lower than other regions of the UK, despite the greater need. When Members discuss the Bamford Review, we must recognise the fact that £10 million is nowhere near adequate to address the needs of mental health and learning disability. It is an insult for people to pretend that £10 million is, in any way, significant support. If we intended to do something about mental health and learning disability, a larger sum would be allocated for it.
Issues have arisen in respect of the review of public administration and the need for reforms of local government, which, at this stage, have not been addressed. The £30 million that the Department of the Environment discussed for the necessary restructuring and reforms of local government has disappeared completely.
To take the tough decisions that need to be taken requires a coherent Executive with a clear vision. There may be a vision from the Finance Minister, but it is not the coherent vision of this Executive, and it is not a vision that carries across to some Members of his party. Even Mervyn Storey — loyal mid-Bencher though he may be — managed to criticise it. I thought that, at least, the Finance Minister would have his own party under control. However, that is simply not the case. There are too many complaints, and there is still too much to be done.
We will back an Executive if they have the courage to take the right decisions, regardless of whether they are difficult or popular. However, we did not support the Programme for Government yesterday, and we will not support the Budget today, because they fail to deal with those issues. It is time to recall this Budget and bring forward a Budget that meets the needs of the people of Northern Ireland.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): At the outset, I want to put one or two points on record.
No Minister who comes to the Dispatch Box — regardless of his or her responsibility — should feel undermined by concerns expressed by colleagues, or by statements, such as that made by Mervyn Storey today, that a Committee will pay special attention to certain areas. That is the job of Committees; that is what I expect them to do. The Committees exist to keep Ministers on their toes and to scrutinise properly. Those actions do not undermine Ministers. Ministers are undermined when their party votes against something that they voted for. We witnessed such an undermining of a Minister during proceedings today and yesterday.
Mr McNarry, Mr Adams and Brian Wilson raised a similar point — though each from a different angle. They asked whether the Budget was solid, or if it could ever be changed. It would be madness for any Finance Minister to bring forward a Budget and say that it will stand for three years and not be changed in any way. That would be a ludicrous position to adopt. There will be changes in the environment and in how we have to do business over the next three years. We will be required to look at different priorities, and it will be the Executive’s job to re-order them; to look at what money is released in monitoring rounds; and to consider the spending of any further funds that we receive by way of asset sales. I give a clear undertaking that the Executive will continue to review and revise the Budget as necessary. Any responsible Executive would do that.
There was a tendency on the part of some Members to damn by faint praise. Mr McNarry thought that the Budget was “all right”, and Brian Wilson said that it was “not bad”. With such lavish praise, I am glad that there were some more constructive contributions to the debate.
The debate was instructive. Opposing views were put forward by Members, but, in most cases, the common purpose of Members was to make Northern Ireland a better place for all of our people. However, it is a matter of regret that, in some cases, we witnessed continued opposition for opposition’s sake.
In amendment No 1, the Alliance Party returns to the theme of the cost of a divided society, presenting a shared future as the panacea for all the financial challenges that the Executive will face. As I said in my opening remarks, although I agree that we should exploit any potential from that source, I have to deal in practical reality, and savings of the order quoted are unobtainable in the short or medium term. Meanwhile, we must continue with sensible and robust financial planning as a fundamental component of the delivery of services.
Unlike the Alliance Party, my colleagues in the Executive and I do not have the luxury of wishing our problems away. We have to deal, in a mature and sensible way, with the real issues that face us. Without the bluff that there is funding available from the source suggested by the Alliance Party — which can be picked up at any moment — it is only through tax increases that the extra spend that the Alliance Party advocates can be met. All Members know that if one was to cost the Alliance Party’s list of additional funding requirements, the regional rate for every household in Northern Ireland would have to be doubled or tripled.
According to the Alliance Party’s suggestion, domestic regional rates will have to be increased by 76% to cover its proposals for additional spending for health alone. In the build-up to future elections, I hope that the Alliance Party members will go out and be as honest as they have been with the Assembly today and state that they are a tax-and-spend party that wants to double or triple the rates of the people of Northern Ireland.
The SDLP tabled an amendment. Even I was beginning to feel sorry for the SDLP today: the party has been embarrassed. I am sure that my information is correct. Right up to the weekend, if not beyond, the Minister for Social Development expected her party to vote with her on the Programme for Government, the investment strategy and the Budget.
It seems that, along the route, for some party-political reason, a knee-jerk decision was taken to vote against the Budget and ditch the Minister.
Mr Durkan: I can assure the Minister that he has been misinformed on that point. Our approach to this whole process, going back a number of months, has been very clear, including the Minister for Social Development’s negotiating remit and priority focus.
Mr P Robinson: Having attempted to get an answer to that question earlier, I am delighted to hear the Members’ remarks. I said that there were only two alternatives: one was that members of the SDLP had shafted their Minister, the other that the Minister had behaved disgracefully at the Executive meeting. If she knew what her party’s position was going to be, we will come back to that and there will be ramifications.
The SDLP’s representative did not table a single amendment at any stage of the Executive’s long consultation process or at the Executive meeting at which the three documents were agreed. It is no answer for the leader of the SDLP to tell Members that this is a democratic Assembly and that “this is where we do it”. If one is a member of the Executive, that is where one should first do it. Of course, if one does not get his or her way in the Executive and decides — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr P Robinson: In the course of the Executive meeting, there was no amendment from the Social Development Minister — none whatsoever. If these were die-in-the-ditch issues, of such importance to the SDLP that its members were discussing them for weeks or months beforehand, it seems strange that its Executive Minister — who is supposed to be a colleague — would not have said at least, “Hold on a second, lads and lassies, I have something that is so important to the SDLP that if we do not get it we will vote against the Programme for Government, the investment strategy and the Budget.” In circumstances of such fundamental importance to a party, it is a Minister’s duty to table an amendment. However, she did not — not a single amendment. It is a disgrace that the Minister for Social Development allowed the Executive to believe that we had resolved to her and her party’s satisfaction all the issues relating to the Programme for Government, the investment strategy and the Budget. At no stage —
Mr Durkan: Will the Member give way?
Mr P Robinson: Wait a moment; I have not finished with the Member. He will have plenty of opportunities to speak.
At no stage did the Minister for Social Development indicate to the members of the Executive that the SDLP would vote against the Budget, PFG or the investment strategy for Northern Ireland, nor did she suggest any changes that might have made them satisfactory to her or her party colleagues.
If the Executive is to work, every member of that Executive must be brought along at each stage of dealing with issues. That is why I took the trouble to resolve outstanding issues with Ministers who were unhappy about their draft Budget allocations and why I attempted to reach agreement with all the parties that are represented on the Executive — not just my colleagues.
It is my responsibility to ensure that all four parties are moving along with the process. However, here we have one Minister who hid from her Executive colleagues the fact that there was dissatisfaction of such a magnitude that the whole wrath of the SDLP would come down on the three key documents that represent the Executive’s future strategy and policy.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for giving way; perhaps he will be able to recover and prevent himself from going completely over the top.
The SDLP tabled reasoned, measured amendments to both the Programme for Government and, today, the Budget, and there was nothing over the top or reckless about them. They are consistent with reservations that I understand the Minister for Social Development expressed in the Executive, and if some of her Executive colleagues had joined her in expressing those reservations she might have tabled an appropriate amendment. What was there to do otherwise? The Assembly is the legal authority on the Budget, and this is the proper place to table an amendment.
Mr P Robinson: That is an absurd comment for a former Minister of Finance and Personnel to have made. What would he have thought if he had worked on a Budget with his colleagues, but was not told at any stage about key issues therein that needed to be changed until his Budget was debated in the Assembly and thrown in his face?
He is correct on one point: the issues that he mentioned are not difficult to resolve. That is the reason that I must wonder why they were never raised; many of them could have been explained to the Minister, had she raised them, and they could also have been explained to the SDLP, had it raised them during the consultation process. The SDLP chose not to raise those issues because, for party political reasons, it wanted to ambush the Executive when the Budget came before the Assembly.
The Member for Foyle should hang his head in shame over the way in which he and his party have dealt with the issue. The SDLP has suggested belatedly that uncertainties over water reform and post-primary education, the standing-down of the children’s fund, and the Budget allocation for health, prevented it from supporting the Programme for Government yesterday and the Budget today.
That list of excuses shows that the SDLP has been scratching around for any possible reason to justify its opposition to the Budget. Although it would have been preferable to have had all the issues that are connected to water reform and post-primary education resolved neatly well in advance of the Budget process, the leader of the SDLP knows — better than most in the Chamber, given his time as Finance Minister — that that is not how it works. The Executive have to undertake the strategic planning process on the basis of the best information that is available at that time. That is the only sensible approach, and it is the policy that he adopted when he was Finance Minister, and it is also that which his Executive colleague, the Minister for Social Development, endorsed.
Other Members asked how a Budget could be considered when the outcomes of the water review and the educational reform programme — if that ever occurs — are unclear. At no time in history has a Finance Minister been able to say that they know everything that will happen three years in the future and can therefore work out their Budget exactly. That will not happen; there are always issues that need to be resolved.
Mr Durkan: What about education?
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr P Robinson: The Member asked about education. How can I possibly produce any costings for education when I do not know what the reforms will be? The only alternative is for me to postpone my Budget until I know. How many months or years would I have to wait? I am required by law to produce a Budget in the time frame and in the manner in which I have. Perhaps the Member for Foyle is suggesting that I break the law; if I did, I might be with the Member for North Antrim Mr O’Loan being interrogated in Castlereagh Holding Centre, which is where he apparently wants to go on holiday.
Had the Minister for Social Development and the SDLP considered matters further, many of the concerns could have been resolved. The Independent Water Review Panel’s strand-two report on water reform was published only yesterday. Given that, how could I have taken that report into account when working on my Budget? Ministers must now consider that report, and the Executive will have to take a position on it. Before any final decisions are made, the Executive’s proposals will have to be subjected to public consultation in the spring.
Although post-primary admission arrangements are referred to in the Budget document, the Minister of Education is consulting with stakeholders on the details of her new proposal. Those will also have to be brought to the Executive for consideration and decision. If we waited for all the contentious issues to be resolved, there would not be a Budget.
Furthermore, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 places a duty on me, as Minister of Finance and Personnel, to lay before the Assembly a draft Budget before the beginning of each financial year. Officials in all Departments have to carry out very considerable planning. Mature government is about considering proposals in the current context while recognising the potential to review and amend as the position changes. In-year monitoring processes can address those emerging issues.
Concern has also been expressed about the Executive’s decision not to allocate funding for a separate children’s fund. There can be no doubt that investing in our children, particularly at an early stage in their development, can yield significant benefits for all society. The only question that the Executive have to address is how that is best taken forward. The approach of the previous Executive in ring-fencing the funding for children’s services from raids by other services had some merit. However, that only meant that projects had less incentive to get up and running, as has been shown by the significant levels of underspend for programme funds more generally.
There is little point in having children’s funds if the money cannot be spent, and is not being spent. Instead, this Executive have agreed that the funding for the projects previously supported by central funds should be included within departmental baselines, where those projects can be considered against competing priorities, and where there is greater certainty regarding funding.
As far as the children’s fund was concerned, there was an underspend of 26.4% last year, whereas the average percentage underspend across the Departments was about 2%. The Executive have decided that they should put that funding into departmental baselines. It is also important to recognise that the establishment of a children’s fund now would require funding to be removed from departmental baselines; and no Minister, including the Member’s own Minister requested that option.
In addition, by having a cross-cutting public service agreement on children and family, the Executive have recognised the importance of Departments working together to provide improved outcomes rather than the administration of a central fund.
Finally — with regard to the SDLP’s amendment — the SDLP returned to the issue of health funding, despite the Minister himself recognising that the best outcome had been achieved in light of the current financial situation. Members will be well aware that the Budget includes record levels of investment in health and social-care services. However, the level of growth in spending has been compared unfavourably by some with that of recent years. In response, I would say that although spending was increasing at a faster rate in the early part of the decade, so was Health Service inflation, in part, due to the response to the increase in funding. The net result was a service in which productivity was falling and waiting lists were rising. This year’s increases, of course, are on top of all of the previous increases.
Mr Attwood: I am intervening now because I believe that the Minister for Finance and Personnel is about to move on to broader themes. He has made two very significant comments during the debate. He has conceded that because he does not yet know what is going to happen with regard to education reform and water charges, no budget lines — not even indicative budget lines — have been arrived at. Does he not accept that over the next month, in the event that significant financial consequences arise in respect of water charges or Budget reform, that he will have to come back to the House and rework the Budget in a way that could make it very different from what it is at the moment?
Secondly, even though he does not know how much those education or water reforms might cost, he said that those matters might be addressed by in-year monitoring. If he does not know how much the reforms will cost, how can he claim that in-year monitoring will produce sufficient funds for Budget lines? There will be many other demands, and, as we know, the Minister made provision in the December monitoring outcome for the health budget.
If the Minister does not know how much policy reforms will cost to implement, how can he say that in-year monitoring returns will cover them? In the event that they do not, where will the Minister find the extra money for water and education reforms?
Mr P Robinson: One would think that the Member had just discovered the oracle. I have been involved in budgets at a local-government level for nearly 30 years. In not one of those budget processes was I not aware of some significant initiative that could arise in the future, but the cost of which, at that stage, was not fully known. In those circumstances, one makes the best stab at assessing what the likely consequences will be.
Whatever the water reform issues might be, they must either be dealt with through a reprioritisation of funding by the Department for Regional Development or by the Executive as a whole. In an in-year monitoring round, money can come from one Department and be used by another. The commitment that I gave at the beginning of this debate was that if there were issues that needed to be addressed, the Executive would address those issues. The Executive cannot simply make a decision on a matter that has cost implications unless they are satisfied that they have the funds to meet the associated costs. The Executive must resolve those issues before they can start the process of agreeing the policies.
If there are funding implications, the Executive have to consider how to deal with the resulting funding pressures. I cannot say what the cost implications of the proposals on either water reform or education reform will be. However, the normal processes of Government have been around for generations and are capable of dealing with those types of pressures. However, if high costs are involved and the relevant Departments cannot bear those costs on their own, there will be consequences for other Departments. That will always be the way. I imagine that that will be one of the factors that the Executive will take into account before approving any such policy.
Members will be aware that the Executive have no desire to return to the failed dogma that states that more spending is the answer to every problem that we face. Instead, we must focus on delivery and better ways of providing services to ensure that outcomes are improved. I cannot accept that the SDLP’s arguments offer legitimate reasons for not approving the Executive’s Budget. As I have already said, many Members — including, as has been pointed out, some of my own colleagues — would prefer to see some changes in some of the spending areas for one Department or another. It is inevitable that each of us will believe that a particular area deserves more funding than is presently allocated.
However, the decision that every Member must make is whether, to use the old Mo Mowlam expression — in the round — one believes that the Budget is facing in the right direction and that its trajectory will take the Executive forward. I believe that it is facing in the right direction. My colleagues on the Executive all believed that it is, and all of them voted, without reservation, for the Budget. I trust that their colleagues will have sufficient faith in their judgement to support what they agreed at Executive meetings.
I listened to the Minister for Social Development’s concerns during the consultation period on the draft Budget. When the issue was first raised in the Assembly, I said that I was signed up to securing more funds for social development and housing. I indicated how I believed that I could get those additional funds, and I delivered more funds to the Minister for social housing. I must point out to some Members that the funds that have been allocated for social housing will not simply meet the targets that the Executive laid down in the Programme for Government — they will exceed them.
Those targets will be met, and the Minister for Social Development agrees with me that if we reach the targets, we should not simply consider that a good job has been done and that everyone can go home — we want to exceed the targets by as much as possible. By providing the Minister with an additional £205 million, on top of the considerable amount of money that her Department received in the last two monitoring rounds, the Executive have shown that they want to assist her.
It is regrettable that the SDLP chose to take its lead from the Alliance Party. Simply to have its voice heard, it opposed the Programme for Government and the Budget rather than joining the rest of the Executive in trying to build a better future for the people of Northern Ireland.
The SDLP leader was asked why no amendment was tabled in the Executive, but I note that he has yet to provide an answer. In truth, no answer could justify the steps taken by the SDLP yesterday and today. Ministers have a responsibility to inform their Executive colleagues of any problems in their party and to seek changes to meet those concerns.
Mr Durkan: Where does that appear in the rules? The Minister is proud of having renegotiated the ministerial code. However, as Alex Attwood said and as I pointed out to the Finance Minister, his changes to the ministerial code bind Ministers but not their parties, which is what he is trying to do now. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. It is important for a Member to request that a Minister or Member give way.
Mr P Robinson: I have never suggested that a party is bound by the action of its Minister. If any Minister with a genuine desire to make the Executive work and to act for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland knows that his or her party has a problem that will cause it to vote against the Programme for Government, the investment strategy and the Budget, the least that could be expected is that he or she informs the Executive.
No such rule or law exists, but anyone will consider it most peculiar that the Minister for Social Development kept mum when she could have told her colleagues in the Executive about a problem that it would be wise for them to address. I suspect that the truth is that the Minister for Social Development thought that her party would back her, and she is putting the bravest possible face on having been badly let down.
Mr B McCrea: The Minister said that it is important for ministerial colleagues to keep him informed, and he described the difficulties in shaping a Budget when certain facts are unknown to him. Would it have been helpful if the Minister of Education had told him what she had planned — particularly plans to deliver a fundamental change to the education system within the three-year period of the comprehensive spending review?
Would it be helpful if all his ministerial colleagues brought him such information? In the absence of such information from the Education Minister, should the Assembly delay the consideration of fundamental changes to education until the next three-year period, by which time he will have had time to gather all the relevant information?
Mr P Robinson: At this stage, it is impossible for me to cost any proposal from the Minister of Education. Before her proposals come before my Department, she must present them to the Executive, a consultation process must be carried out and her Department must cost them. Until then, I do not know whether the Minister’s budget alone, or in conjunction with any additional funding that the Executive are willing to provide, can meet the cost of her proposals. I do not even know whether the proposals can receive the Executive’s support, but that is a matter for them.
Month after month, every Minister will have to deal with new proposals; at no stage will a Minister have dealt with all the proposals in his or her remit. However, I accept that the proposal in question is of great significance and is, potentially, hugely expensive.
However, I can work out a Budget only on the basis of the funding pressures of which I am aware. I have done that. If new pressures arise, clearly there will be decisions for the Executive to take.
Several Members raised the issue about the reference to the £1,000 that each household will benefit from. I am not clear as to what type of mathematics they have engaged in — they seem to think that there will be some difference in the £1,000 if the bills came through the door in the form of water charges. The figures that I quoted were the distinction between what is planned by this Executive and what would have happened had direct rule continued. Therefore, the reference to £1,000 took into account the fact that people would probably already have had two bills for water charges had it not been for the decisions of the Executive.
Therefore, the Executive have already saved people very considerable amounts of money compared to what they would have been paying in water charges had direct rule continued. Furthermore, the percentages would have increased with time in accordance with the legislation that was already passed.
Moreover, the Minister for Regional Development has already indicated that people should not pay twice for their water. The Executive have identified — and it has been accepted by the Consumer Council and others — that the figure of £162, or thereabouts, is the amount that had previously been paid by consumers in their rates bill for water, and that the overall amount should be reduced by that figure so that people are not asked to pay twice.
Therefore, that is what gives rise to the fact that people will be £1,000 better off as a result of devolution. The Executive’s decisions take into account water charges being sent out according to the plans that the Executive already have in mind, but also the fact that we are freezing rates for householders for the next three years, whereas there had been an average of approximately a 10% per annum increase under direct rule.
Those are the savings that make up the £1,000. It is quite simply a straightforward arithmetical calculation that I had hoped Members would have been capable of understanding and accepting.
As Declan O’Loan acknowledged, I have always been clear that the saving is over a four-year period. However, it is still a substantial saving and that money is much better in the hands or pockets of the people of Northern Ireland, rather than supporting inefficiency across the public service.
A number of Members, including Stephen Farry, Declan O’Loan and Roy Beggs, raised issues concerning economic policies. Comments have been made about the appropriateness of existing economic policies and the relevance of regional targets. Let us be clear: existing economic policies that are driven by a direct rule mindset will, at best, ensure that the Northern Ireland economy will continue to languish at around 80% of the UK average. That is simply unacceptable.
We need to examine our suite of economic policies and invest further in only those programmes that will enhance our regional productivity. Investing in the four key drivers of enterprise, innovation, skills and infrastructure will be the key determinant for agreeing investment. Measuring our regional performance against the south-east England financial powerhouse is pointless. We have defined the PSA targets to allow us to better gauge relative performance against the other UK regions.
Improved performance will not appear overnight; it will be a slow and gradual process. However, the Executive are determined to reach the targets that have been set. Bringing about such improvement is why I accepted the offer from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for a second Varney Review. An external objective assessment of our economic policies and needs can only be helpful.
I strongly encourage my Executive colleagues, the Assembly Committees and Members to fully engage with Sir David Varney over the next four weeks during the consultation period. We need complete clarity on what direction our economy is required to take. Therefore, we need complete clarity on the policies that must be implemented.
Issues were raised by, among others, Mitchel McLaughlin, the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, and by Declan O’Loan and Roy Beggs, regarding the regional economic strategy. The new regional economic strategy will be significantly influenced by the second Varney Review as well as the decisions that have been taken by the Executive in respect of the Programme for Government, the investment strategy and the Budget.
I take no comfort from pointing out that I have always urged caution in managing expectations when trying to obtain any tax dispensation, and many of us were disappointed by the attitude taken in the first Varney Review.
However, the second Varney study will provide an objective assessment of what our economy needs by way of development policies and programmes. I am glad to say that that review will have some of our in-house officials involved, and there will, therefore, be a greater degree of local expertise going into the process.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel and Mr O’Loan raised concerns about PFIs and PPPs. Such contracts can only be put in place if they represent robust value for money in business cases and if they are affordable as regards departmental allocations.
Additional funding for youth services was mentioned, and I would like to point out to Jennifer McCann of West Belfast that in response to the call for public consultation for additional funding for children and youth services, the Executive have allocated an additional £13 million across the Budget period. The Minister of Education has used that money to allocate an extra £4·6 million to current expenditure on youth services.
Jennifer McCann also mentioned social housing and the affordability review. Across the three-year Budget period, the Department for Social Development has been given the resources to deliver 2,000, 2,250 and 2,500 social and affordable houses each year respectively. To complement the Semple Review, Baroness Margaret Ford was commissioned by Margaret Ritchie to undertake a review of funding capacity, planning policy and delivery structures for social housing in Northern Ireland. I welcome the Minister’s initiative and the interim report by Baroness Ford, which I have seen. The Minister will consider the issues emerging from the report of her advisory panel, which is examining the Semple Report, and will report back to the Executive.
Efficiency targets were mentioned by a number of Members, including Stephen Farry, Declan O’Loan and David McNarry. Some commentators have expressed concerns about the deliverability of the 3% efficiency targets, and I agree that that issue is important. Departments will soon be setting out detailed plans on their departmental websites showing how they will deliver against the targets, the key risks to delivery, and the associated contingency plans. That work will provide assurance, and will facilitate scrutiny of the delivery plans by Assembly Committees. Rather than doubt whether 3% can be attained, there should be pressure to try to go beyond 3%.
There seems to be confusion and concern that the efficiency agenda presents a risk to front-line services. The whole point of the efficiency agenda is to release funds specifically for reallocation to front-line services, not to take them away. Although it is for individual Departments to deliver those savings, Departments can come back to the Executive to seek support and assistance in the event that circumstances mean that delivery of efficiencies in any year will not be possible. I emphasise the point that the responsibility is on the Executive, as a whole, to deliver the targets set out in the Programme for Government.
David McNarry and Roy Beggs mentioned the question of funding for a national stadium. I assure them that I will take the decision in the Department of Finance and Personnel and inform my Executive colleagues, and it will be based entirely on the evidence presented in the business case. The key driver for that decision will be demonstrable value for money and affordability, and it is only right that the business case should embrace all the cost factors. I assure the Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs that infrastructure, and other associated costs, will not be ignored when value for money and affordability are being considered.
David McNarry and Alan McFarland referred to the Chancellor’s package. It seems ironic that Mr McNarry should raise the issue of the package, since he and his party had given up on it before devolution and had advised my colleagues to move on to devolution and leave the issue behind. If it had been left to them, we would still be stuck with the reinvestment and reform initiatives and borrowing conditions that would have required huge annual regional rate increases. I am glad that we managed to get that changed.
We should not underestimate the scale of what we have achieved, especially in the wider UK public expenditure context in which the package was secured. Although we would have liked to have achieved more — and what Executive would not? — negotiations with the Treasury have paid dividends. The Member for North Down said that we promised a £1 billion package and that we had failed to deliver. He is right; we have failed to deliver a £1 billion package — we have delivered a package that is worth more than £2 billion.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr P Robinson: As a result of the negotiations, we delivered guaranteed —
A Member: Where is it?
Mr P Robinson: The Member asks, “where is it?”. If he looks at the investment strategy, he will see where it is. We have £2 billion a year in capital expenditure, because we are using the benefits that we could derive from the package, benefits that came from our ability —
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Mr P Robinson: The Member should let me make the case before he intervenes. Indeed, he might choose not to intervene when he hears the case made.
Previously, money that was gained by way of asset disposal found its way back to the Treasury and, at the very least, we ended up having to argue for it or some part of it. We would never have been able to argue for the scale of asset disposal funding that we have been able to allocate in Northern Ireland. We have already been able to identify approximately £1·1 billion for the next three years. The capital realisation task force has identified another £295 million over that period, and I have allocated only £200 million in the provisions of the Budget. Therefore, there will be some room to manoeuvre should there be issues about the price of land that some Members referred to or other pressures that we might face.
Does the Member want me to give way now?
Mr B McCrea: I will ask a simple question on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. If we have received the £2 billion, why do we all feel so poor? Why is the man in the street worried about the price of diesel, the price of food and other prices? The whole issue — [Laughter.]
Members can laugh, but I want to ask them a question. Does the Northern Ireland public feel that it has been given a fair deal?
Mr P Robinson: I can confirm that I have no intention of allocating funds to a subvention for restaurants or the local grocery shop. The amount of capital funds available for the last comprehensive spending review period was £600 million per annum. We now have — and I will speak in language that the Member might understand — £2,000 million — well over three times the previous allocation, and that was due to the provision of the Chancellor’s package. It was a massive bonus for the Executive.
In addition to the amount that we have gained from asset sales, we have had access over the Budget period to our full stock of end-year flexibility funding, and that has amounted to some £440 million. We have access to unused RRI borrowing, which is worth a further £100 million. As I have already said, breaking the link between access to borrowing under RRI, with the requirement to close the gap with GB council-tax rates, has been a massive benefit to the Executive and has allowed me to ensure that we did not have the 19% rate increases that the policy that the Member for Foyle introduced as part of his party’s allocation for RRI — [Interruption.]
I would love to tell the story of my visit to the Member when he was Finance Minister, when I advised against breaking the link between our regional rate and water charging, and the consequences of that change.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr P Robinson: I have only 15 or 20 minutes left, and by the look of the number of the pages that I have still to read, I am less than halfway through, so I had better speak quickly.
Today, it is the Executive and the Assembly who determine the level of rate increases in Northern Ireland, not local government in Great Britain.
Mr McNarry also raised the issue of the number of Departments that various parties hold and, therefore, how important those parties are and how far they can puff out their chests. He boasted about the size of the budgets of the two Departments that his party colleagues hold. Let me just tell him that size is not everything. The size of the Budget is not the key determinant in these issues. The quality of services that will be delivered to the people of Northern Ireland is what matters, rather than what those services cost.
The Alliance Party accused us of having a low-tax Budget. I am unapologetic about the reduction in rates for households and businesses. Industrialised countries across the world have recognised that supply-side policies, such as low taxation, are the key mechanisms for improving economic growth. I was surprised that Stephen Farry quoted the CBI and ERINI as though they were supporters of his, because they have been at the forefront of the call for reductions in corporation tax.
The Member for North Antrim Mr Storey raised the issue of reform costs. Although the programme of Civil Service reform, including Workplace 2010, must receive an appropriate level of funding over the Budget period, the level of costs required has not been finalised yet. Therefore, it would not have been appropriate to allocate all the funding at this time, in light of the competing priorities and pressures. That will also incentivise the programmes to minimise cost and maximise efficiencies.
The issue of procurement and poverty was raised by Jennifer McCann and Sammy Wilson, although I am not sure that they were both singing off exactly the same hymn sheet. The Executive have a statutory requirement to adopt an anti-poverty strategy. Ministers are committed to making people’s lives better by tackling poverty and social exclusion. Those principles underpin the Executive’s Programme for Government.
I remain convinced that the most effective way to alleviate poverty is to create employment and enhance regional economic growth and, in parallel, to increase spending on public services. That is what this Budget does. Although it is important that the Executive do all that they can to reduce the unacceptably high level of poverty in Northern Ireland, it must be recognised that using Government procurement as a tool to address poverty may result in lower levels of value for money, with an associated impact on services that are provided to the public.
Declan O’Loan raised the issue of the Department of Finance’s efficiencies. Over the CSR period, my Department will take forward the most wide-ranging reform of public services that has been seen for a generation. At the heart of that reform programme is a commitment to developing world-class public services that will not only support the needs of the economy, but bring benefits to the wider society in Northern Ireland.
Delivering efficiency within public services is central to both the Programme for Government and the Budget over the next three years. As I have already said, I have established a performance and efficiency delivery unit to examine the scope for Departments, including my own, to deliver savings over and above the 3% target for this Budget. More than 40% of the funding that is allocated to my Department over the CSR period is required to support the delivery of the key Northern Ireland Civil Service reform programmes on behalf of all the Northern Ireland Civil Service Departments. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order, Members. A number of meetings seem to be going on in the Chamber.
Mr P Robinson: If Members are reconsidering the decisions that they have taken in the past, they can continue with their discussions, and, hopefully, some sense will come from them.
The process of benefits realisation associated with the reform programmes will extend beyond the CSR period as projects are implemented and service delivery is stabilised.
Consequently, qualitative and quantitative value-for-money savings are expected to materialise over the longer term. Against that backdrop, the efficiency target of £14 million by 2010-11 represents a significant challenge. Despite that, my Department has identified, and is committed to delivering, efficiencies of at least £14·8 million by 2010-11, thereby finding savings that are 5% above the set target. Of the total efficiencies identified by 2010-11, £5·7 million — or 38·5% — relate to the recognition of income associated with recouping the cost of collection of district rates on behalf of district councils, thereby generating £5·7 million of additional resource cover for investment in services across the Northern Ireland block, and thus it represents a legitimate cash-releasing savings action.
The issue of funding for the arts was raised by several Members. The Executive recognise fully the role played by arts and sports in society, as is shown by the additional £4 million allocation to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, in response to the concerns raised during the public consultation process on the draft Budget. The matter of the libraries was also drawn to our attention.
However, although we recognise the case for additional funding for the arts, it is important to note that spending comparisons quoted liberally during the public consultation significantly understate the current position as regards arts funding in Northern Ireland. In particular, alternative figures, from the official Treasury source, suggest that funding for the arts is on a par, if not higher, than in England, while sports funding is significantly higher. Therefore, I am confident that the increased provision for arts funding, agreed by the Executive in the revised Budget, will allow the people of Northern Ireland to enjoy the same benefits in that respect as the rest of the people of the United Kingdom. The proposed allocation will enable the implementation of the sport and physical recreation strategy, although the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will need to make some difficult decisions with regard to its priorities.
The issue of funding for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was raised by the Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs. The increase in funding for that office since the previous period of devolution is mainly due to the provision of more services, rather than to an increase in bureaucracy. Since 2002-03, an additional £5 million has been spent on victims; that will rise to £13 million by 2010-11. An additional £2 million is required for the ongoing running costs of the office of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, which was not in place under the previous Executive.
With regard to support for the Executive spending area, the majority of additional costs relate to the Strategic Investment Board and the reinvestment and reform initiative. Although I encourage all my ministerial colleagues to keep costs as low as possible, I hope that Members agree that the services provided by OFMDFM for children, victims, older people and community relations are of significant benefit to the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr Beggs: Will the Minister give way?
Mr P Robinson: I would love to give way, but I have so little time left that, by bringing Mr Beggs in for a second or third time, I will not cover another Member for a first time.
However, I will deal with a point that he raised in relation to the capital realisation report. The excellent work of Ed Vernon and the capital realisation task force identified the potential for £290 million asset disposal over the Budget period. As I indicated, I have not allocated all that potential funding, but rather have adopted a prudent assumption over the Budget period. A key issue to be considered before any disposal is taken forward is the state of the market. In that way, we will ensure that we secure the maximum value of all disposals. I assure the Member that there will be no fire sale of assets while I am Minister of Finance and Personnel. Consideration is being given to the publishing of the capital realisation task force report. At present, it is with the Executive, where further decisions have yet to be taken.
The issue of road structural maintenance was raised by Fred Cobain. I found his contribution to be rather Jekyll and Hyde in nature: while he read his script as Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, he made positive and constructive points; while he read his own script, he was in orbit and made some comments that were neither rational nor factual. The Budget allocation for structural maintenance will allow Roads Service to give priority to maintenance of the strategic road network, which carries the greatest volume of traffic. Other roads, including rural roads, will receive resurfacing treatment as far as the Budget allocation will permit.
A system of regular safety inspections is in place to ensure that essential response maintenance is identified and completed when necessary. The outcome of the final Budget means that funding for roads structural maintenance will total £200 million during the Budget period. I can assure all Members that that spending area can, of course, be augmented if in-year monitoring rounds identify additional funding and the Executive consider that an appropriate priority.
Fred Cobain also referred to railways. Translink now has the resources to procure 20 additional new trains, the first of which will be in service in 2011. It will also be able to construct a new railway station in Newry, secure some £40 million of track improvements between Knockmore and Lurgan, as well as completion of the £12 million track extension between Ballymena and Coleraine, and take forward a major track relay between Coleraine and Londonderry.
In respect of health efficiency, the Chairperson of the Health Committee, the Member for Strangford Iris Robinson MP MLA — with whom, as you would expect, Mr Speaker, I agree entirely — pointed out that the Budget package for health represents a golden opportunity for the Health Minister to deliver further efficiency savings beyond the 3% target. It provides him with much greater flexibility. Of course, any efficiency savings that are made will go to front-line services.
I welcome the work of the Bamford Review of mental health and learning disability. I am sure that all Members want improved services for patients in that sector. The additional allocations in the revised Budget for 2008-11, along with a package of measures to provide greater financial flexibility, will enable the Department of Health to cover its substantial cost pressures as well as a series of service developments during the Budget period. That will include improvements to mental-health and learning-disability services.
The Member for Upper Bann Sam Gardiner referred to the environmental protection agency. No decision has been made about the establishment of such an agency in Northern Ireland, which was proposed in the report of the review of environmental governance. I understand that the Environment Minister is carefully considering her approach to environmental governance. In doing so, she is taking account of the recommendations of the independent review of environmental governance report, of resource and wider policy considerations, and of points that stakeholders have raised with her and the Department.
The Member for West Tyrone Barry McElduff referred to additional resource allocations. He pointed out that they would enable the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to allocate additional funds to areas that he and I consider important, such as sport and physical recreation. I believe that around £11·5 million has been allocated to commence the implementation of the Department’s sports and physical recreation strategy, which focuses on increasing participation in sport, particularly by young people.
The Member also referred to the fuel duty differential. In recent years, the fuel duty differential has converged considerably. It is also welcome that law-enforcement officers in the border area have seized around 11 million litres of illicit fuel, dismantled 93 laundering plants, disrupted 19 criminal gangs who were involved in oil fraud, and secured 31 convictions for oil fraud offences. That occurred between April 2000 and March 2006.
Mr Adams pointed out to Members on these Benches that there were issues that they might want to consider, such as the denial of fiscal flexibility that comes with Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom. I must point out to him that there are significant benefits from Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom, particularly the fact that its deficit, which is in the region of £7 billion per annum, is funded by the Treasury. That amounts to around £9,400 for each member of the population of Northern Ireland. Therefore, if the Assembly were to consider that purely on financial terms, it would not make any changes. However, for many Members, the reasons for staying in the United Kingdom go well beyond the issue of finance.
I will touch on the issue of microgeneration, which the Member for North Down Mr Brian Wilson raised. For many buildings, certain microgeneration technologies will simply not be appropriate; for example, wind turbines or solar panels in a shaded hollow, or wood-pellet heating systems where there is insufficient space in which to store pellets. Therefore, it makes no sense to mandate designers to use them. Improving the thermal performance of a building is widely recognised as the most cost-effective means of reducing emissions. Mandatory microgeneration would force designers to use a more expensive technology to achieve the same results.
I think that it was the same Member who tabled some questions for written answer on that subject. Rather than take up further time now, I can tell him that he got an extensive response, which he may have already received, to those questions. Papers have been placed in the Library as a result of inaccurate stories on the issue that were printed, particularly in ‘The Irish News’.
I thank all Members who spoke today and who have put forward their views throughout the Budget process. I regret that, due to time constraints, it has not been possible to respond to each issue that each Member has raised during the course of the debate. However, I hope that the main themes have been addressed. I am sure that we will return to many of them in future debates on financial matters.
Members have raised a number of important issues, not only for the Executive to consider as we move forward but for individual Departments and their Committees to consider. Although I may have fundamentally disagreed at times with a position that has been advanced, that should not be mistaken for any lack of desire on my behalf, or on that of my Executive colleagues, to hear differing views on the proposed priorities and their associated spending plans.
The debate throughout the Budget process was at times robust, but there can be no doubt that the public’s views have been made known. The Executive have listened to those views, and the result is an improved set of Budget proposals. In that context, I agree with the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ editorial on the revised Budget, which stated:
“when it comes to putting government money where it is most needed, there is no substitute for devolution.”
That is not to say that any devolved Budget would be good enough for the people of Northern Ireland — we have done much better than that.
The Budget is a Budget for households, because it reduces regional rates; for business, because it increases levels of support, particularly for innovation activity; for public services, because it provides record levels of investment; and for all the people of Northern Ireland, because it puts in place a comprehensive strategy to deliver real improvements to local people’s lives.
Although the Executive’s spending plans must be kept under review, I am confident that we have a strong starting position for the next three years. Therefore, I recommend to all Members that they support the Budget and do not pander to any party political advantage.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Speaker: Order, Members.
Before we proceed, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support. The votes on the amendments will require the support of a simple majority. I remind Members that if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall.
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 9; Noes 66.
Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr McCarthy, Mr Neeson, Ms Purvis, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Lo and Mrs Long.
Mr Adams, Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr P Maskey, Mr McCallister, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mrs McGill, Mr McGimpsey, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Hamilton and Mr McKay.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 15; Noes 65.
Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Dallat, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Dr McDonnell, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr D Bradley and Mr Burns.
Mr Adams, Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr P Maskey, Mr McCallister, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mrs McGill, Mr McGimpsey, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Hamilton and Mr McKay.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 67; Noes 24.
Mr Adams, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Ms Gildernew, Mr G Kelly, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Hamilton and Mr McKay.
Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Dallat, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Dr McDonnell, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey.
Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr McCarthy, Mr Neeson, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr P J Bradley and Ms Lo.
Total votes 91 Total Ayes 67 (73.6%)
Nationalist Votes 37 Nationalist Ayes 22 (59.5%)
Unionist Votes 46 Unionist Ayes 45 (97.8%)
Other Votes 8 Other Ayes 0 (0.0%)
Main Question accordingly agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2008-09 to 2010-11 as set out in the Budget laid before the Assembly on 22 January 2008.
Water Supply at Killyclogher
Mr McElduff asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline the work being undertaken by his Department to repair the water infrastructure near Killyclogher; and to ensure that the hundreds of families affected are reconnected to the public water supply.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): I have been advised by Northern Ireland Water that no families are currently affected by the loss of water supply due to the burst water main in the Killyclogher area, and none require reconnection to the public water supply. All customers are being supplied from adjacent water supply zones.
Mr Speaker: Order. Members should leave the Chamber in an orderly fashion.
Mr Murphy: I am surprised that there is not more interest in this matter.
Northern Ireland Water has isolated the section of damaged pipe and contingency plans have ensured that water supplies have been secured. The location of the breach has made the repair technically difficult and potentially hazardous. The difficult ground conditions have caused the pipe failure to recur at the same location, and Northern Ireland Water has engaged specialist structural engineers to provide advice on the best long-term solution and on the necessary preliminary works to ensure that the repair can be carried out with the minimum risk to health and safety.
The focus remains on repairing the damage as quickly as possible while managing the present technical and safety considerations. At the same time, the re-zoning allows water supplies to be brought in from other areas and has allowed Northern Ireland Water to continue to provide customers with water supplies.
Mr McElduff: Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer and for accepting the private notice question. I welcome the assurance that no families are currently affected by a loss of supply. I appreciate the efforts of those carrying out the work in that area, on what are poor ground conditions.
How many calls did NI Water receive between Thursday 24 January and the evening of Sunday 27 January? Will the Minister detail the nature of the work being undertaken to provide a long-term solution? Furthermore, will the Minister give an assessment of the short-term risk of a possible recurrence of the problem?
Mr Murphy: I appreciate the difficulties that have been caused for the people of Omagh. As I have said, no one is currently without a water supply. Of course, the people in the affected area will want some degree of certainty of future water supplies and of the continuity of that water supply.
On Thursday 24 January when the incident initially occurred, approximately 200 calls were received by Northern Ireland Water’s customer relations centre between 4.30 pm and midnight. On the evening of Friday 25 January when the problem reoccurred, approximately 250 calls were received as the initial re-zoning exercise to supply the area from adjacent supplies proved not to be extensive enough. On Sunday 27 January, approximately 20 calls were received between 10.00 pm and midnight when the initial attempt to repair and recharge the main was unsuccessful.
As the Member said, the terrain around where the leakage occurred is difficult to work on. It was a landslide that dislodged one section of the pipe from the other. The ability of Northern Ireland Water’s engineers to successfully carry out the repair was hindered by the ground and weather conditions, which caused difficulties and created health and safety issues for the operatives.
They made the connections to replace the water supply from other sources. As I have said, initially that did not suffice, but it was rectified and has sufficed since. It is the intention of Northern Ireland Water to repair the landslide that caused the initial leakage as soon as possible and to have all of the properties reconnected to the supply from Killyclogher.
Adjourned at 7.48 pm.