Northern IreLand Assembly
Monday 9 June 2008
Executive Committee Business:
Executive Committee Business:
Oral Answers to Questions:
Executive Committee Business:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mrs D Kelly: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The legislative framework that brought about the establishment and restoration of the House — the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews legislation — requires that there should be equality for all peoples in the North of Ireland. Given the recent comments by Mrs Robinson, does the Speaker consider that the matter should be referred to the Standards —
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member should take her seat. The Member is out of order, and she knows it — that is not a valid point of order.
Mrs Long: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given the public statements that were made during the past week with reference to the approach that the First Minister may take to the discharge of his duties on equality and good relations, particularly where the gay and lesbian community in Northern Ireland is concerned, has he sought an opportunity to address the House to clarify his position and that of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister?
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Speaker: That is not a valid point of order.
Referral of a Ministerial Decision to the Executive Committee:
Mr Speaker: I inform Members that on Monday 2 June, I received a valid petition to refer a ministerial decision to the Executive Committee under section 28B of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The petition related to the decision by the Minister of the Environment not to establish an independent environmental protection agency, as notified to the Assembly on Tuesday 27 May. Having consulted with the parties — in accordance with the Act and with Standing Order 27A — I have certified that the Minister’s decision relates to a matter of public importance.
On Wednesday 4 June I referred the decision to the Executive Committee for consideration, by way of a letter to the First Minister and deputy First Minister. When I am notified of the Executive Committee’s decision, I will announce it to the Assembly at the earliest opportunity.
Suspension of Standing Orders
Mr Speaker: I have been advised that the Minister of the Environment, Mrs Arlene Foster, will move the motion on behalf of the Executive.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to move
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) inclusive be suspended for 9 June 2008.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) inclusive be suspended for 9 June 2008.
British-Irish Council: Social Inclusion Meeting
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure that he wishes to make a statement regarding the outcome of the British-Irish Council social inclusion meeting.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): The third ministerial meeting of the British-Irish Council (BIC) social inclusion group was hosted by the Welsh Assembly Government in the Senedd, Cardiff on 20 May 2008. The meeting focused on the challenges presented by child poverty — particularly the issue of lone parents — in the eight member Administrations.
The British-Irish Council was established under the agreement that was reached in the multi-party negotiations in Belfast in 1998, and it provides a forum for its members to exchange information, discuss, consult and use best endeavours to reach agreement on co-operation on matters of mutual interest, within the competence of relevant member Administrations.
The meeting was chaired by Dr Brian Gibbons AM, the Welsh Assembly Government’s Minister for Social Justice and Local Government. The British Government were represented by the Rt Hon Stephen Timms, the Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform; the Irish Government were represented by Mr Gerry Mangan, the director of the Office for Social Inclusion; and the Scottish Government were represented by Mr Stewart Maxwell MSP, Minister for Communities and Sport. Minister Murphy and I attended on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive; the Isle of Man was represented by Mr Dudley Butt MLC, the political member for the social services division of the DHSS; Jersey was represented by Senator Paul Routier, the Minister for Social Security; and Guernsey was represented by Mr Al Brouard, the deputy Minister of the Social Security Department.
We discussed the recent developments on social inclusion in the Administrations and focused, particularly, on issues relating to child poverty. The group had an interesting discussion on the projects that were contributing most to progress in that area, and it reviewed the successful work that is being carried out by the BIC’s social inclusion group on child poverty — with a focus on lone parents, since that theme was chosen in 2006.
The Ministers noted the range of definitions that are used in that field and the comparison of statistics across the BIC region. We also acknowledged the findings of the literature; a review of the existing evidence based on tackling child poverty, particularly among lone-parent households; and the key challenges met by member Administrations. Furthermore, we commended the examples of good practice in tackling such challenges.
We considered the merits of each of the four potential new areas of interest to be taken forward by the BIC social inclusion group: older people in long-term care; homelessness and affordable housing; the voluntary and community sector; and migrant workers. We agreed that the work over the coming year will focus on the contribution of the voluntary and community sector in promoting social inclusion.
The work carried out by the officials will continue to seek to strengthen and consolidate the ongoing co-operation and exchange of information experienced in best practice between member Administrations. The National Assembly for Wales presented a paper on child poverty. The Ministers welcomed and noted that the next ministerial meeting will take place in Scotland; and further details are to be confirmed.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McElduff): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an ráiteas seo agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as.
My question emanates more from my involvement in the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister than it does my chairmanship of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. As part of the OFMDFM Committee’s inquiry into child poverty, the Committee has been examining the relevant issues.
OFMDFM furnished us a copy of the report last week. Will the Minister say what action the Executive plan to take to ensure that the report leads to improvements in policies and actions to tackle child poverty, including, for example, joint initiatives with other Administrations? We welcome the report and statement, but where is the action plan for the Executive?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Executive remain committed to dealing with, and tackling, the issues. We will continue to work with other Administrations in the British Isles. The Department for Social Development (DSD) will take the lead in developing our plans for tackling poverty.
The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) also has a key role to play. It has a unit that is dedicated full-time to the issue of child poverty. Therefore, the Executive will make the case to the Assembly for adequate support, funding and recognition, and they will do so through the Department for Social Development and OFMDFM.
Lord Browne: At its launch in November 2006, ‘Lifetime Opportunities: Government’s Anti-Poverty and Social Inclusion Strategy for Northern Ireland’ set a target of halving child poverty by 2010-11, and its complete eradication by 2020. Will the Minister state whether those targets are being met and remain achievable?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Those targets remain achievable across the UK. I am interested in a proposal that the UK Government are considering. That proposal is to guarantee that anyone who is coming off benefits and going into employment receive at least £50 a week more than they did while on benefits. That would assist a considerable number of people living on benefits.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for his statement, and for its focus on the eradication of child poverty. The statement said that the voluntary and community sector would be looking to eradicate poverty and promote social inclusion. Given budgetary constraints, and how other funding is being diverted towards meeting the challenge of the Olympics, how does the Minister intend to support the voluntary and community sector?
On the subject of social inclusion, will the Minister comment on what has been said by his DUP colleague, Mrs Robinson, on the lesbian and gay community? Her comments further isolate that community.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I deplore Mrs Kelly’s attempt to introduce a matter that has no relevance to the issue under discussion. The Member’s behaviour demonstrates how little interest she has in social inclusion, child poverty and the voluntary sector.
Other regions in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man look to Northern Ireland for its voluntary-sector expertise, which has been built up over many years, mainly through European funding. Reduced financial support from Europe means that the voluntary sector faces challenges. The Government will try to help where we can, but many projects must become self-sustainable or face being discontinued, because the funding just does not exist.
Mr Speaker: Members are reminded that this is an opportunity to ask questions on the Minister’s statement.
Mr McCarthy: I welcome the Minister’s statement. Older people and their long-term care are among various issues on the work programme. Bearing in mind that the Executive have failed by totally excluding free personal care from the Programme for Government, will the Minister, through the BIC — and particularly the Scottish Executive — get free personal care for older people in Northern Ireland back on to the agenda?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Member will be glad to know that I raised the issue of elderly people, especially the difficulties that they currently face, given their static budgets and the rising costs of living — in particular, the rising cost of home heating and food. It was agreed that, as part of the review that is being conducted on the voluntary and community sector, we will consider how that sector can contribute to the well-being of older people.
Mr K Robinson: I thank the Minister for his statement. I am delighted to note the four new areas that the Council will consider in the future. Given that my colleague Kieran McCarthy has just asked about the Council’s role in its deliberations on older people, I want to raise the growing problem in Northern Ireland — and right across the United Kingdom and these islands —regarding migrant workers — that is, the role of migrant workers, the conditions under which they work and their housing problems. Will the Minister specify whether the issue of migrant workers, and the problems that assail those persons, will be considered by the Council in the future?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The issue of migrant workers is one of the topics that was considered for the next discussion group. Unfortunately, only one topic could be chosen, and, on this occasion, the voluntary and community sector was selected. We recognise that migrant workers in Northern Ireland and Great Britain comprise a significant population. That brings its own problems, which we need to deal with and be aware of to ensure that immigrants can expect a reasonable quality of life and standard of living.
Mr Shannon: I also thank the Minister for his statement, and I realise that he is speaking in his capacity as a member of the Executive and respresenting the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Will the Minister state what information has been exchanged among representatives of the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government and the National Assembly for Wales that we could beneficially use given that the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is currently conducting an inquiry into child poverty? Next week, the Committee will present a report on that inquiry to the House, and any available information would be very handy.
During the Minister’s statement, he mentioned the fact that the National Assembly for Wales presented a paper on child poverty in its Administration. Will the Minister indicate what targets that Assembly has set, whether they are rigid and, if so, whether they are achievable?
The Minister referred to the future work programme and help for those of a certain age, as well as the issues of homelessness and affordable housing. Will he state when those issues will be presented to the Assembly and to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, through the British-Irish Council?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: There are common problems and challenges in all Administrations. We must explore such issues, and, in order to align policy and delivery, we share information and report on issues such as access to affordable childcare, in-work poverty, partnership and joint working with local government and other stakeholders. Study visits and good practice have been valuable to officials, and there are some successful, innovative interventions that OFMDFM, as well as other Departments, can examine more closely and possibly implement.
Other Administrations have also been learning from us. For example, initiatives such as the work being conducted on benefit uptake by the Department for Social Development are being shared with the Scottish Government. An anti-poverty strategy is currently being reviewed by Ministers before it is circulated to the Executive. In the development of that strategy, Northern Ireland Departments can examine successful projects from other jurisdictions and consider what may be appropriate for us to implement. When we are determining the way forward, we will, of course, take account of the recommendations in the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s report.
Mr Speaker: That ends questions to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The House can take its ease for a few minutes as we await the arrival of the Minister for Regional Development.
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister for Regional Development that he wishes to make a statement on the regional development strategy.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I apologise for being slightly late.
My statement marks the start of our review of the regional development strategy (RDS). I want the review to be an inclusive one which will hear, and benefit from, a wide range of views and options.
Although we have differing views from time to time, we are united by our stewardship of the North, and we have a responsibility to our children to step back from the day-to-day management of Government and consider what we want for the North in the longer term. What sort of place do we want our children to inherit, and how many people will live here? How do we help to grow our economy? Where do we want our children to live, work and play? What do we mean by regional balance, and how can we work towards it? How should we respond to climate change? How can we obtain the most benefit from investment in our infrastructure? How do we position ourselves in a North/South, east-west, European and world context? Finally, how do we better respond to the speed of change around us?
Those questions take us beyond the time frame of our Programme for Government, so a long-term vision, within which all our actions can fit, is required. A vision without clear direction on how to achieve it is not worth the paper it is written on. Our vision must include clear and strategic direction on how it can be achieved by numerous small steps now and in future years. That is the role of the regional development strategy.
My Executive colleagues and I have discussed and agreed the need for a fundamental review of the regional development strategy. The new strategy will be different: it will be relevant to key stakeholders and flexible enough to deal with changing circumstances, yet robust enough for decision-making; it will set priorities and list a selected number of key infrastructure projects that are essential for economic growth; it will take account of, and be relevant to, structures and functions that emerge from the review of public administration; and it will take account of the many changes that are happening around us.
The speed of change is what strikes me: standing still is not an option. We must embrace change and be part of influencing and guiding our future. Ours is a growing population: population projections show growth greater than had previously been expected. By 2012, we will have a population of over 1·8 million in the North, and it is possible that it could exceed 2 million by 2030. However, where people choose to live is changing. Years ago, many people fled Belfast due to fear that was caused by intimidation and violence. Between 1995 and 2005, the population of Belfast fell by almost 25,000 to 268,000 — a drop of more than 7%. In that period, all other council areas experienced population increase.
For a time, Belfast was one of the greatest cities in these islands, and it should be our goal to make it great again. The success of the North depends on that. A strong Belfast is not a threat to other areas. For many years, we have argued over the allocation of funding to Belfast at the expense of other areas. There is an imbalance in the infrastructure between east and west, which I am addressing through investment in roads and rail. However, we must get away from the narrow sectional debates and look broadly at our region. We must examine how our cities, towns, villages and countryside areas support and interlink with each other, and how they are all important.
We need a discussion about what regional balance means and about how we unlock our potential to grow as a region.
Given the different political perspectives, that may be a difficult issue for us to tackle. However, it is an issue that we cannot, and should not, duck. I am determined to lead the debate, and, in doing so, will set the tone for a mature debate that is evidence driven and that will benefit the people of the North.
The original regional development strategy recognised the role of Derry — the regional capital of the north-west, a city with over 90,000 people, which sits on a magnificent setting on the banks of the Foyle, and which has a rich and long history — for the first time. I want to develop that even further.
The Executive have endorsed the cross-border work in the north-west and have recognised the linkages between Donegal, Derry, Limavady and Strabane. Joint investment by both Governments in the airport, in the road that links the north-west to Dublin, and in dualling the road from Derry to beyond Dungiven are but some of the projects that link the north-west better with the island as a whole. How can we maximise the potential of those projects? How can we attract more investment to the north-west? Those are just some of the issues that the review of the regional development strategy will consider.
In the south-east, the city of Newry has seen amazingly strong growth in recent years. Ideally sitting, as it does, between the two main cities on the island — Dublin and Belfast — it has benefited from that economic corridor. Like Derry, it is developing its cross-border linkages with Louth and Dundalk, recognising the potential of working together. Again, I want to explore how we can support and develop the further growth of Newry and its surrounding area.
Stretching north from Newry, places such as Banbridge, Craigavon, Dungannon, Cookstown and Magherafelt have experienced strong population and economic growth in recent years. Together, those council areas have experienced a population growth of more than 9%, which is well above the regional rate. The strong growth of that band, which runs through the middle of the region, brings with it new issues about the delivery of services and infrastructure.
Further west, Omagh has also performed strongly. The development of the A5 and A4 will open up new opportunities for Tyrone and Fermanagh. My role is to ensure that we maximise the potential of that investment.
In speaking about the different areas, there is always the risk of offending some people by leaving out their area. The people in the areas that I highlighted are no more important than people anywhere else. One aspect that makes this land so special is our settlement patterns: we have strong links to land and to place, and a more dispersed settlement pattern than other areas.
While that is what makes us so special, it brings with it challenges. It makes us heavily dependent on the car. Year by year, more and more cars are driven on our roads. Between 1992 and 2006, the number of cars increased by 80%. There are now 800,000 cars on our roads; more journeys are made within the region and beyond; people commute further and further to jobs and schools; and there are more routes to new destinations from our airports.
How do we manage such growth? For example, how do we improve access to our ports and airports, which are so important to an island economy? Part of the answer, undoubtedly, is better roads. Increasingly, though, we also need to focus on public transport. We need to think about reducing the need to use a car by better planning of where homes, schools and shops are built, and of where jobs are available. I am also initiating a review of the regional transportation strategy, which will consider such issues in detail.
The environment and our response to climate change will influence all our actions now and in the future. We are privileged to live in a place with a rich, natural environment, including the Causeway Coast, Rathlin Island, the Mournes and the lakes of Fermanagh, to name but a few. Our approach to the environment needs to find a balance between protecting it and unlocking the potential for tourism.
Increasing demand for new homes, sometimes in unsustainable locations, more cars on our roads and increasing demand for energy all impact on our environment. Transport is a key contributor to carbon dioxide emissions: there has been a 41% increase between 1990 and 2005. We are already doing much to improve and protect the environment, but, can we do more?
Before setting out a new approach to regional development, I will make some comments on the existing regional development strategy. It was the first regional spatial plan produced in England, Scotland, Wales and the South. In many ways, it set new approaches that were later applied in those other jurisdictions. At that time, it was recognised as a best-practice document, and it reflected the emerging European thinking on planning for regional development. It is something that we can rightly be proud of, but time moves on, and it is time for change.
I inherited from the direct rule Administration a five-year review of the strategy, which considered the need for detailed adjustments, but did not address the principles in the regional framework. The results of that review are adjustments to some aspects of policy on economic development, tourism and rural areas. That work will be published this month.
The five-year review was not a fundamental assessment of the strategy. For timing reasons, the opportunity did not exist to take account of significant issues that have emerged recently and that influence how we plan for the future. Such issues include higher than expected population levels; the need for more houses; climate change; and how to plan to maximise the use of existing infrastructure and facilities in our cities and towns.
It is clear that although many of the policy directions in the existing RDS are still sound it has not had the influence that was anticipated. That was due to a combination of factors, including insufficient detail and clarity on matters such as housing need, rural development, and the growth of cities and towns.
There has also been criticism over the use of housing figures in the strategy. Many see them as unnecessary for, and restrictive to, forward planning. Others want some indication of housing need, but in a way that better reflects local need and the growth potential of particular areas.
We need to better understand the contribution that rural areas make to regional success and how we can support the cities, towns, villages and countryside beyond Belfast and the north-west to prosper and grow.
The RDS can only be delivered through the plans and programmes of individual Departments and agencies. I do not see the RDS as a Department for Regional Development (DRD) strategy, but as one for all of Government and beyond. Many of its policies are being taken forward through development plans prepared by the Department of the Environment (DOE). However, for a variety of unforeseen reasons, the roll-out of the development plan programme has been slower than hoped, and the rate of impact of many RDS policies has suffered.
There is now an opportunity to learn from experience and to prepare a new regional development strategy that is fit for purpose and takes account of recent emerging trends that affect how we plan for the future.
With the unprecedented levels of expenditure we plan to make over the next five to 10 years, we have an opportunity to influence this land much more than previous generations did. More than £3·5 billion will be spent on transportation alone. That is our challenge and our responsibility to future generations.
I am conscious of the need for this major review to be concluded quickly. It is essential that new policy directions are developed to a point where they can inform the next investment strategy, which is planned for 2009. Although the review is planned to take up two years, I will assess ways to shorten the process where possible. I am, however, very aware of the need for involvement from all Departments and key stakeholders, which will take time.
The timetable is challenging. I have set up a number of groups to take the review forward. The Executive have agreed to a ministerial subgroup; and the first meeting with ministerial colleagues is due to be held shortly. I am also keen to benefit from the considerations of the Committee for Regional Development, which received an initial briefing on 28 May.
I have also reformed an interdepartmental steering group of officials at a more senior level and I welcome Departments’ commitment to that approach. The first, and very constructive, meeting of that group was held on 28 May. I have also extended the membership of the external working group, which provided important input to our work on the five-year review.
There are other important initiatives, which I will take into account. The DOE is undertaking a reform of the planning process, and I will meet Minister Arlene Foster to discuss the important relationship between the RDS and development plans.
I am also fully aware of the need to take account of structures emerging as part of the review of public administration. Although regional planning and policy statements will remain a central Government function, it is clear that the relationships with local planning and development management must be structured in an efficient and effective way.
The strategy deals with a wide range of environmental, social and economic matters. It affects the working of all involved in regional development. I am therefore aware of the need to consult widely and effectively. I want to ensure that this is managed in a way that allows the timely emergence of revised policy to inform budgetary and investment decisions.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
I said at the start of my statement that we needed a long-term vision within which our actions can fit. That vision must include a clear strategic direction about how it can be achieved. My aim is to produce a revised regional development strategy that can accommodate the economic growth now expected in the medium-to-long term. That means a strategy that sets directions for the location of jobs, houses, businesses, public services, and facilities across the whole region.
The strategy must seek to make Belfast a great city once more, build on the significant opportunities for growth in the north-west and its hinterlands, and provide connections for North/South and east-west development.
It must better recognise the role of all cities, towns, villages and the countryside, and how they all support and work together with one another. That approach may include identifying key regional projects, which are considered essential for balanced economic development.
In dealing with all those issues, the RDS must set out a clear high-level vision for the North. It will have a strategic focus. It must be an aspirational document, setting out the actions needed to translate the vision into reality. It will focus on the development of regional significance, including population, environmental issues, telecommunications, housing, economic development, and infrastructure developments.
It must be an enabling document that sets out the interventions required of the Executive to make that happen. It is not a DRD document; rather it should become the Executive’s spatial strategy and plan.
The RDS is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself. It must concern implementation, and the actions and priorities necessary to deliver the vision. It must set out how connections could be made to deliver a more sustainable future development.
It will play a key role in informing how places are shaped and developed at a local level. The review is, clearly, a very challenging and timely piece of work that gives us the opportunity to shape the future of the North over the next 20 years. I look forward to working with my ministerial colleagues and the Assembly as the work develops. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr Cobain): The Minister will be aware of the Committee’s interest in the relationship between brownfield sites and greenfield sites. To that end, will he explain how he intends to ensure that the maximum amount of development in our cities and towns takes place in brownfield sites rather than greenfield sites?
The Minister for Regional Development: I thank the Chairperson for his remarks. The existing regional target — for 60% of additional houses to be built in existing urban areas — has been successful. That figure has been exceeded since the RDS was adopted in 2001.
While the potential for building in urban areas may change over time, it is right to maintain the current approach, so that the potential for building houses in appropriate locations in existing urban areas is maximised. However, it must be recognised that building more houses in urban areas must respect the need to protect the character of residential areas. In that context, Members will be aware that — as part of the five-year review of the RDS — I have changed the definition of “brownfield development” to exclude gardens.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr Wells): Members will have noted with interest the Minister’s statement on this important issue. In particular, they will have noted the concentration on Londonderry and — surprise, surprise — Newry. There is a concern that the revised RDS will concentrate resources into areas west of the Bann.
Will the Minister assure Members that resources and infrastructure will be distributed evenly across this part of the United Kingdom, with no particular bias towards any city or town?
The Minister for Regional Development: If the Member listened carefully — as I am sure he did — he will have noticed that I mentioned every county in the North and most of its major towns.
The Executive recognised the imbalance in regional development and set the task of redressing that imbalance as part of the Programme for Government. The rewritten regional development strategy provides a very clear opportunity — to which all Members will be given an input — to do what the Executive recognised, which is to redress the regional imbalance.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I welcome the Minister’s statement, and his commitment to areas west of the Bann in particular. Does the Minister think that the RDS will help to end regional imbalance?
The Minister for Regional Development: In itself, the RDS cannot deliver regional balance, but it sets out the framework and actions that are required to achieve balanced growth throughout the North. That must address the important role that Belfast has as the regional economic driver, and how all parts of the North can benefit from that.
Derry city has a significant role to play in creating a prosperous north-west. Equally, it is important that the economic potential of district towns — some of which act as gateways — is maximised. The RDS has a role in setting out how those component areas can best be developed, and the priorities required to deliver growth. I am also considering the possibility of identifying regional projects that are required to deliver regional prosperity in the areas of infrastructure, development, energy, telecommunications and tourism.
Mr Dallat: The Minister told us that the RDS is only a strategy, and not a means to an end — we accept that. However, does the Minister agree that there are serious outstanding deficits in the north-west? Derry is the only city that is not linked to the capital city by a decent rail service. In addition, it is the only city that is not linked to Belfast by a proper motorway. Above all, the town of Dungiven has the highest carbon dioxide levels of anywhere in these islands. Does the Minister agree that additional finances are urgently needed to address those imbalances? I am sure that Mr Wells would be happy to support those basic human rights.
The Minister for Regional Development: We have identified the finances that are needed to support those connections. As the Member is very much aware, I lifted the investment ban on the railway line between Coleraine and Derry. Money is being spent on the line between Belfast and Ballymena.
We have identified a substantial project to improve the service between Belfast and Derry — especially the morning service into Derry city — and we have brought forward the plans for the A5 and A6, including the bypass at Dungiven. The money and resources have been identified for all those projects. The importance of the north-west, and Derry’s role in the north-west as an economic driver, is recognised. Derry’s port and airport are also recognised as key features, and resources have been identified to support them.
Mrs Long: I welcome the Minister’s comment on the definition of brownfield sites. The statistics in the RDS form a major part of the evidence base that supports long-term planning for public-sector capital investment in infrastructure. Those facts diverge from what is happening on the ground, due mainly to the area plans not having flowed in sequence. What action will the Minister and his counterpart in the Department of the Environment take to ensure that there will be a smooth transition between area plans in order to make sure that runaway speculative development does not shape the nature of development in our cities?
The Minister for Regional Development: I have scheduled an early meeting with the Minister of the Environment to discuss those matters. The regional development strategy is a high-level Government document that refers to the region as a whole and to where the Government would like to see development. Area plans then follow on from the regional development strategy. The Minister of the Environment has initiated her own review of the planning process, so it is important to ensure that the strategies dovetail.
The previous regional development strategy was a huge document, but its impact on planning and development was not as expected. When drafting the new document, we have an opportunity not just to take into account new issues that have become more important, such as the environment, imbalance and other such matters, but an ability — with a functioning Executive — to ensure that there is a read-across through all Departments.
The review will take place on several levels. For example, there will be a ministerial subcommittee that will involve others besides the Minister of the Environment and me. A high-level group of civil servants from every Department has already met, and I was pleased with the seniority of the people in that group and with its commitment to the process. An external working group also exists, and that will bring in influences and ideas from outside Government. There is a real opportunity to ensure that a joined-up Government approach is taken to the strategy and that the Department for Regional Development does not simply produce a document to see whether other people recognise it.
As I said earlier, I hope to produce an Executive document that will guide regional planning. Other strategies will then flow from that document.
Mr Moutray: I welcome the fact that the Minister’s statement has ensured that the review will take us beyond Sinn Féin’s 2016 united Ireland fantasy and that the Minister accepts that Northern Ireland will be part of the United Kingdom for the long term.
The Minister referred to the need to better recognise the role of our cities, towns and villages, and he considered population growth in places such as Banbridge and Craigavon. Will the Minister turn his attention to seeking assistance for towns such as Lurgan, which have had the heart blown out of them by terrorist bombs and have suffered economically ever since? Will he also prioritise infrastructural improvements to reflect population growth in places such as Lurgan, Banbridge and Portadown?
The Minister for Regional Development: Whatever the constitutional future — and that is still up for question — we will still need to develop the region and we will still need good policies to govern that development. We will still need regional development strategies, whether the future is in an all-Ireland context or in the current restrictive political context within which we now operate.
Part of the current strategy recognises clearly the all-Ireland links that have developed substantially over the past few years. It is ludicrous to talk about the development of Derry in isolation from the development of the north-west as a whole, including Letterkenny and other parts of County Donegal. Similarly, it is ludicrous to talk about the development of Newry without involving Dundalk and County Louth.
The Member asked about Lurgan and other towns. It is clear that a central band of towns has experienced significant growth, and Craigavon Borough Council covers one of those areas. One of the weaknesses that was identified in the previous document was that it focused on Belfast.
It provided, for the first time, some degree of focus on the north-west and on Derry’s role, but it was less focused on the rest of the North. The strategy offers the opportunity to refocus on all areas; not by trying to be all things to all people and giving everyone a nod, a wink and a mention, but by refocusing on development and identifying the areas in which the population is concentrated, and assisting them to achieve their potential for growth. Part of the strength of the new approach is that it will involve all Departments, which ensures that any plans will be co-ordinated.
Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his detailed statement, and I welcome his recognition of the growth in the mid-Ulster towns of Dungannon, Cookstown and Magherafelt. Will he examine the fact that there is, unfortunately, no linkage road, as the A29 does not link the three towns? Does he accept that, in the past, the RDS was not flexible enough to respond to the number of new homes required for the local and migrant populations? How will he address the issues of equality? In particular, how will he deal with the decentralisation of Departments to rural areas, such as mid-Ulster?
The Minister for Regional Development: If I could achieve all that, I would be very popular. The weakness of the last strategy document was that it did not have the required flexibility when the predicted population growth was exceeded. The document included housing-growth indicators and, in some areas, became a bar to development, rather than allowing development in areas to which people were trying to relocate due to the availability of jobs. Therefore, the RDS must be a more flexible document.
The housing-growth indicators have been a thorny issue, and perhaps there is scope for new thinking on that. Rather than trying to curtail development in certain areas, we should identify areas of increasing population and determine what must happen to support that. Development must be sustainable and not damage the character of any area, but the housing-growth indicators have a restrictive — rather than an enabling — influence. In many ways, the Department views the development of the document as enabling — rather than restricting — development. All development will be subject to new equality impact assessments that will consider how to balance development throughout the North and between east and west.
Mr Irwin: In Newry and Armagh, which is my constituency and that of the Minister, there is a wealth of small and medium-sized rural businesses, many of which not only supply the Northern Ireland market, but export to countries throughout Europe. The Minister will accept that such businesses play a vital role in the rural economy of Northern Ireland, but does he accept that the infrastructure of roads in many rural areas requires vast improvement to assist existing businesses and encourage continued growth in the rural economy?
The Minister for Regional Development: I accept that, if the resources were available, the roads in all rural areas could be improved. However, limited resources force the Department to prioritise the roads that are used most. I accept that, throughout rural areas, small and medium-sized enterprises sustain the population in many ways. The Member is aware of the downturn in farming in recent years, and more people are turning to small businesses to enable their families to continue living in rural areas.
The Executive’s central focus is on economic growth, not only through large inward-investment projects, but by supporting local economic growth and small and medium-sized enterprises. Francie Molloy also made a good point about rural roads, and my Department tries to employ the limited resources in the best way possible. With an awful lot more money, we could do a great deal more, but we are restricted by our budget.
Mr McCallister: As the increasing dependence on cars and the growing demand for energy are having an impact on the environment, how will the regional development strategy bring about the required sea change, particularly the reduction in carbon emissions?
The Minister for Regional Development: That can be done, provided that a long-term view is taken. Although carbon-emission levels in other sectors are declining, they have risen by 40% in the transport sector — it is the one area in which a significant increase in carbon emissions has occurred, and that is damaging. It is a long-term trend about which we must do something.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, the commuter belt around Belfast has widened. The population is increasing further south, west and north of Belfast, whereas there has been a reduction in the population of Belfast itself. That means that more people are travelling in and out of Belfast, because that is where a huge number of jobs in the North is located. Therefore, more commuting takes place, and from greater distances. That contributes to an increase in carbon emissions.
Several factors must be taken into account. One factor concerns where jobs are located and where development is happening; another concerns public transport, in which it is clear that significant investment is required. The predictions are that, in the next 30 to 40 years, 40% of the population of Ireland will live on the east coast, in the corridor between Belfast and Dublin. That will raise some significant issues for commuting and transport. Therefore, the regional development strategy, which looks beyond current budgetary planning and investment-strategy planning, must identify, as far as is possible, emerging trends. It must also identify what needs to happen in future in order to try to reduce carbon emissions and make a real contribution to the environment.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas.
I thank the Minister for his statement, in particular his reference to Newry’s growth. Last week, we discussed the importance of a southern relief road in the further development of Newry, and I am sure that that will be included in any future strategy. As a point of information, my support for a southern relief road does not imply opposition to the Narrow Water bridge project, as the Minister seemed to think was the case last week.
Does the Minister agree that the possibility of enhancing the growth and development of Armagh city — including better cross-border infrastructure — must be explored? Can he confirm whether a much stronger North/South element will be a central theme throughout the revised regional development strategy? Will the strategy lend support to such cross-border projects?
The Minister for Regional Development: To answer the Member’s final question first — yes. The purpose of rewriting the regional development strategy is to take account of new developments, and one key development is the much stronger North/South linkages. I said that Derry and Newry’s association with the border meant that they could not be considered for development in isolation.
The Member asked about Armagh city. We want to consider development potential right across the board, and if there was a weakness in the original strategy, it was that no specific focus was placed on areas outside Belfast and Derry. Places were labelled as hubs on maps — when I last visited Armagh City and District Council, councillors wanted to know whether Armagh was still a hub. I told them that it was, but that did not mean very much. Armagh may be described as such on a map, but what does that mean? What development flows from that description? Rather than to try to be all things to all people, and to give everybody a mention, we want a regional development strategy that works. Central to that are North/South linkages, because that is where the development potential lies.
People have — foolishly — joined one camp or another over the issues of a southern relief road and the Narrow Water bridge project. I make the point that every time Mr Bradley’s counterpart and namesake gets up to flog the merits of the bridge project, someone else gets up to promote the road. Mr McCallister asked me last week whether I was signed up to building a southern relief road, because that was in the development document. However, the Narrow Water bridge project can also be found the development document. Like the Member’s party colleagues, I was happy to sign up to the document, and that means support for both projects, as Mr Bradley rightly says.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement and I thank him for it. He stated that the approach that is taken to the environment must seek a balance between protecting it and unlocking its potential for tourism. The main stumbling block to the development of tourism is poor roads infrastructure. Will the strategy ensure that tourism will be given the same priority as the rest of industry? Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister for Regional Development: One element of the strategy is, obviously, to reflect the Executive’s Programme for Government. There is no point in having a regional development strategy that is at odds with the Programme for Government, a central aim of which is to grow the economy. Tourism development is one of the key sectors in the North and, I am sure, throughout the island.
Several Members raised the point about roads. With its current budget, the Department will continue to struggle to provide the type of roads that people believe that the North deserves. That is why there must be prioritisation to try to develop key transport corridors — the roads on which there is most traffic. Had the Department received a much greater allocation from the Treasury, which it was able to spread as best it could across all other roads, there would be a much better roads network. The Department will continue to do all that it can with the resources that is has to try to improve the roads network.
If the regional development strategy, which dovetails with the Executive’s Programme for Government, recognises that growth of the economy is at the programme’s centre and that tourist destinations are vital for economic growth, the strategy will obviously reflect the need to resource and support that development.
Mr Campbell: The Minister has referred several times to the importance of cross-border development and to Londonderry and Newry. Most people would concede that those cities are important, particularly because of their international linkages with the country that is immediately adjacent to Northern Ireland. People will want there to be progressive development in those areas. However, will the Minister not turn his mind to — and deal with — the fact that, right across Northern Ireland, as an entity, people want development to be focused towards the particular transportation needs of communities? They want the concentration of effort and the review of the RDS to focus on ensuring that resources are deployed accordingly.
The Minister for Regional Development: I accept the Member’s comments. I assure him that that is the way that the Department intends to approach the matter — to spread its resources as best it can. I believe that there is general recognition in the Executive — people may choose to differ — that there has been an infrastructure deficit between the east and the west. In areas of the north-west and, I am sure, in the Member’s constituency of East Derry and other rural constituencies, there is certainly a need for improved infrastructure.
Although the importance of the major city of Belfast — and of Derry for the north-west region — has been recognised as an economic driver, the role of rural areas, their contribution and the need for connectivity between them was not adequately reflected in the current RDS.
Interestingly, the Member picked up on the strategy’s focus on North/South elements. It also focuses on east-west elements. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet the Minister who has responsibility for transport in Scotland to discuss the linkages between Larne and the roads around Loch Ryan. The Member will be aware that the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and I met the First Minister of Scotland at last week’s launch of the new Stena Line terminal in Belfast. Again, we discussed the links between Belfast and Scotland, which are becoming hugely important, as is the connection through Scotland to mainland Europe.
Mr Simpson: In seeking to grow the economy in the way that the Minister has outlined, and in drawing attention to Northern Ireland’s rich natural environment and the potential of its major tourist attractions, surely emphasis must be placed on ensuring that it is able to outcompete its nearest neighbour. Why has the Department not made a single mention of Lough Neagh’s rich natural environment and massive tourist potential?
The Minister for Regional Development: As I said in my statement, I am sure that, although the Department has mentioned a range of areas, it will have left some out. If Lough Neagh has been left out, it is not because its potential is not recognised — it certainly is recognised.
I do not see the issue in narrow terms as a competition with the South. If the development in Derry and Newry are anything to go by, the lessons are of co-operation, development of mutual strengths and of attracting more business together.
The South attracts many more tourists and international visitors than the North does. Perhaps the Member’s approach is to compete, rather than to work to ensure that the island as a whole enjoys the full benefit of international visitors who seek the tourist product.
I am sure that the case for Lough Neagh will be well made. Today we launch what will be an exhaustive and extensive consultation and discussion with Executive colleagues, senior officials from all Departments, external advisers, the Committee for Regional Development and the Assembly as a whole. Members will have many opportunities to stress the importance of their particular interest. The fact that Lough Neagh was not mentioned in my statement does not mean that it is not considered to be a key resource. After all, it is located smack in the centre of our region.
Mr Burns: I thank the Minister for his statement, during which he urged the need for better transport links to and from ports and airports. Belfast International Airport, which is located in my constituency of South Antrim, requires better public-transport links. Is the Minister still of the opinion that to build a railway link to Belfast International Airport is not economically viable, despite the fact that only a couple of miles of track would be needed in order to link with the old Knockmore line? Has he considered building a guided bus lane to that airport? Such a regular service would get people who travel to the airport in their cars out of them.
The Minister for Regional Development: It is interesting that a high-level discussion about the development of the region ends up as a discussion about local roads, but that is fair enough during an open question-and-answer session.
Transport accessibility to airports and ports is a focus of the review of the regional development strategy. I have discussed road links with those who run Belfast International Airport, and they consider that issue to be of primary importance. We have also discussed the rail link, and it is viewed as being economically viable. If there were to be an opportunity to reassess the development of the region, those priorities might change.
As I said in my statement, and given that we are an island economy, access to and from the island, including the linkages to ports and airports, is a key area to be examined. Many of the major roads projects that are being undertaken, such as the Westlink upgrade, projects in the north-west and that for a southern relief road, are concerned with port and airport accessibility. The focus on that will increase as the level of traffic increases, and the form of travel used to get to and from all the airports changes, most notably that to and from Belfast International Airport.
Dr Farry: The Minister rightly said that Belfast is a driver for the regional economy. In addition to considering the overall distribution in Northern Ireland, will the strategy also consider how Belfast can best have the critical mass to compete at European and international level when it comes to being a major city? Does the Minister recognise that it may be best to think of Belfast not only as a city but as a wider city region, which encompasses the suburbs? That would ensure adequate distribution of jobs.
The Minister for Regional Development: If the Member had seen some of the statistics that we have seen, he would know that, compared with other areas, much more than the lion’s share of jobs — those jobs at the higher end of the scale — are located in Belfast and those council areas that form greater Belfast.
My statement recognised that Belfast is the central driver for the region. The population of Belfast city centre has reduced over the years, and we must consider whether that depopulation is good for Belfast. It leads to much more commuting and creates more congestion on the roads. Along with propositions such as that for a rapid transit system for Belfast, consideration must be given to how, through the development of genuine brownfield sites, the population of Belfast might be increased. Such big, key strategic matters must be considered.
In the past, many people thought that the Belfast-and-Derry-versus-the-rest argument was divisive. We must get beyond that by shaping a regional development strategy that best recognises Belfast’s importance as well as the development potential of other towns and villages. Such development can support the region’s and the island’s economy.
Supply Resolution for 2008-09 Main Estimates and
Mr Deputy Speaker: I have been advised that the Minister of the Environment, Mrs Arlene Foster, will move the next two motions and the First Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill on behalf of the Executive.
Since the next two motions relate to Supply resolutions, I propose to conduct only one debate. I shall ask the Clerk to read the first motion, and I shall then call the Minister who shall move that motion. Debate will then take place on both motions. When all Members who wish to speak have done so, I shall put the Question on the first motion. I shall then ask the Clerk to read the second motion into the record and the Minister to move it before putting the Question without further debate.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to four hours and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 45 minutes to propose and 45 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have 10 minutes.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to move
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £7,184,270,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 and that resources, not exceeding £8,474,916,000 be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 as summarized for each Department or other public body in Columns 3(b) and 3(a) of Table 1.3 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Estimates 2008-2009 that was laid before the Assembly on 30 May 2008.
The following motion stood in the Order Paper:
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £7,224,593.19 be granted out of the Consolidated Fund for or towards defraying the charges for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety – Health and Personal Social Services Superannuation, for the year ending 31 March 2007 as summarized in Part II of the Statement of Excess document that was laid before the Assembly on 30 May 2008. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster).]
It is with some trepidation that I move the motions tabled by the Minister of Finance and Personnel. These important Supply resolutions seek the Assembly’s approval of the spending plans of Departments and other public bodies for 2008-09 and its approval to provide excess cash to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) for 2006-07.
I request and recommend the levels of Supply that are set out in the resolutions under section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provides for the Minister of Finance and Personnel to make recommendations to the Assembly, leading to cash appropriations from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund.
The first resolution, relating to the 2008-09 Supply, is based on the first year plans of the Budget 2008-2011, which was approved by the Assembly on 29 January 2008. However, as Members are well aware, Budgets set spending plans, but do not, in themselves, convey cash or resources to Departments or give them the legal authority to spend cash or use resources. That is done through Assembly approval of the Supply resolutions, the Estimates and the associated Budget Bill.
The first resolution seeks the Assembly’s approval to issue a cash sum not exceeding £7·2 billion from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and the use of resources not exceeding £8·5 billion for 2008-09.
The amounts of cash and resources that are covered by the first resolution are in addition to the cash and resources voted on account for 2008-09 in the Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2008, which was passed by the Assembly in February. Those amounts will complete the total provision of £12·5 billion and £15 billion of resources required for 2008-09 by Departments and other public bodies, as detailed in the Main Estimates volume, which was laid before the Assembly on 30 May 2008. The public services to be funded by those allocations have been debated by the Assembly, both in the context of the debates on the Executive Budget for 2008-2011 and the Vote on Account in February.
The second resolution seeks the Assembly’s approval on the issue of a cash sum of £7·2 million from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund, as detailed in the Statement of Excess, which was laid before the Assembly on 30 May 2008. That issue was considered by the Public Accounts Committee, which recommended in its report that an excess vote should be granted by the Assembly. The resolutions, once approved by the Assembly, will be the precursor to the Budget No 2 Bill, which I hope to introduce in the Assembly later today.
The Assembly took steps along the legislative path with a similar Budget Bill just one year ago. I hesitate to state that we, as Assembly Members — or I, personally — are now all experts on the minutiae of the Estimate volumes. Of course, some Members may be experts. I know that Members will by now be familiar with the need, for logistical reasons, for accelerated passage for Budget Bills.
For the financial year that commenced in April, Departments are spending cash and using resources on the basis of a Vote on Account in the Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2008, which was passed in February. As that provided only initial allocations, it is now essential that the further Budget Bill progresses through the Assembly before the summer recess and receives Royal Assent by 31 July 2008. The consequences of not doing so would be that Departments would run out of cash during the summer, which clearly would have devastating implications for public services.
At this stage, I acknowledge the assistance of the Committee for Finance and Personnel in this matter. I understand that the Committee has confirmed that there has been appropriate consultation with it on the Main Estimates and the draft Bill and that it is content for the Bill to proceed by accelerated passage. The Executive and I very much appreciate the Committee’s valuable contribution to the financial process and the scrutiny role that it plays at each stage.
As I stated earlier, the 2008-09 Main Estimates are based on the first-year plans of the Budget 2008-2011, which was agreed in January. However, since the final Budget in January, some technical adjustments and departmental budget additions, regarding centrally held funding, have been made in respect of issues that were not known or resolved at that stage. I hasten to reassure the Assembly that those technical adjustments are routine and do not change the spending plans that were approved by the Assembly in January.
I remind Members that Budgets are plans for wider public-sector spending, including for arm’s-length bodies, on the full range of devolved services, while Estimates are restricted to departmental level, hence the table in the yellow section of each departmental Estimate to assist the reader to reconcile the Estimate to the Budget.
The first resolution before us today, which is supported by the 2008-09 Main Estimates, represents the cornerstone on which this legislative body not only sets limits on expenditure and the use of resources, but holds Departments accountable for managing and controlling that spending and use of resources within those limits authorised for that particular year. In that vein, if a Department exceeds any of those limits, the Comptroller and Auditor General, on examination of the accounts, will report the excess to the Public Accounts Committee, which, in turn, will examine the reasons for the excess and report the results of its examination to the Assembly.
The second resolution arises from such an excess by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety superannuation vote in 2006-07. A Statement of Excess was laid in the Assembly on 30 May 2008. The excess cash requirement of £7·2 million arose from a failure to estimate accurately changes in working capital and cash within the health and personal social services superannuation scheme. As I mentioned already, the Public Accounts Committee has examined that issue and recommended in its eighth report that the necessary sum will be provided by an excess vote in the Assembly.
It is critical that Departments manage their resources and cash within the limits that are approved by the Assembly, and a central plank of good financial management is that those limits are based on taut and realistic estimates.
I appreciate the tightrope that Departments have to walk between minimising underspend and ensuring that an excess does not occur. However, we must be ever mindful that we are dealing with taxpayers’ money, and that we have a responsibility, as custodians of the public purse, to ensure that resources are managed efficiently and effectively. The public obviously expect better from a devolved Administration, and we must deliver on financial management.
My colleague Peter Robinson, now the First Minister, rightly placed great emphasis on improving the quality of financial management in Departments. I know that the new Finance Minister wants officials in the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) to continue to work actively with all other Departments to that end. On his behalf, I urge Departments to avail themselves of the training available for staff, especially non-finance staff, in policy areas in order to ensure that decisions are taken with due regard to financial consequences.
Last week, the House received details of the provisional out-turn for 2007-08. That statement highlighted many areas of concern for the Assembly, and for my colleagues and I in the Executive in particular, with regard to the continuing level of underspend on current expenditure. Eight of the 11 Departments showed a position in excess of 2·3% of planned spend. On the capital front, six of the 11 Departments had underspends in excess of 12%. In addition, two Departments overspent.
The trajectory of spend, in both resource and capital, highlighted a significant uplift at the end of the year, which is a cause for concern. I hope that my colleagues in the Executive take this message to heart and, with the assistance of the Statutory Committees, ensure that that situation is not repeated this year. The Finance Minister will be looking closely at out-turn figures and the need to consider options for incentives for Departments in order to improve their financial management.
The Estimates that we are debating derive from the Executive’s first Budget. Agreeing and announcing plans, such as these Main Estimates, is relatively easy. Delivering within those allocations will prove more challenging. The public rightly expects delivery on the targets and outcomes that were published in the Programme for Government, and the Executive will be held to account for that delivery.
In implementing the Programme for Government, we have the opportunity to strengthen the local economy, and to improve infrastructure and public service. Performance against the commitments that were made in the Programme for Government and public service agreements will be measured and monitored to ensure and drive delivery. A key strand to that will be the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU), which has been working with colleagues in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) to develop the performance monitoring arrangements for the Programme for Government.
PEDU is available to assist the Executive, Ministers and Departments in ensuring that the commitments and targets that are set out in the Programme for Government are realised. The focus of PEDU will, therefore, be on the Executive’s priorities and on where funding has not been translated into the desired outcomes. I urge my Executive colleagues to avail themselves of PEDU’s support.
Improved public services must be delivered within the available resources and with a focus on increased efficiency. It is not an option simply to call continually, as some have done, for increased allocations, which could be funded only by an increase in the tax burden on households and businesses.
The Committees that scrutinise each Department will have a key role. The role of Assembly Members and Committees is to challenge and assist Ministers and Departments. It is also their role to hold Ministers and Departments to account. Assembly Members and Committees have a vital role in ensuring that Departments deliver on the Programme for Government targets for improved services, and in driving out inefficiencies. That task should commence immediately, and continue doggedly and persistently throughout the next three years. We do not want to wait until the end of the current Budget period to discover that Departments have not delivered on targets or that efficiencies have not materialised.
I fully appreciate the enormous challenge that lies ahead in developing a culture of delivery and efficiency across the public sector and of growing a dynamic, innovative economy in the current tight fiscal environment. It is a challenge that faces us all, and we must all play our part: Ministers, Departments, accounting officers, Committees and Members of the Assembly.
The amounts of cash and resources sought in the Supply resolutions are substantial on top of the Vote on Account. The Main Estimates for 2008-09 break the total requirements down to a finer level of functional detail for each Department. Although I am presenting the Estimates on behalf of the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the underlying detail reflects decisions taken by Ministers within delegated financial authority given by the Department of Finance and Personnel. Therefore, although I will endeavour to respond in my winding-up speech to as many points as possible, I hope that Members will appreciate that I may be unable to respond in detail on individual departmental issues. In those cases, I may refer the matters to the appropriate Ministers for a response.
On behalf of the Minister of Finance and Personnel, I recommend the Supply resolutions and ask for the support of Assembly Members for the motions.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement and for her brevity. I, too, will be brief in outlining the Committee’s position. Senior departmental officials briefed the Committee for Finance and Personnel on 28 May 2008 and 4 June 2008 in relation to the Main Estimates for 2008-09 and the associated Budget (No 2) Bill, which gives legislative approval to the Estimates. The Bill will be introduced in the Assembly following this debate.
Advance copies of the Main Estimates were made available to Committee members at the meetings. DFP officials also provided a helpful paper to the Committee, which reconciled the figure work in the Budget to that which is included in the Main Estimates. Following those briefings, on 4 June 2008, the Committee for Finance and Personnel agreed to grant accelerated passage to the Budget (No 2) Bill. The Main Estimates and the associated Budget (No 2) Bill are the outworkings of the process to finalise the Executive’s Budget for 2008-2011, which was agreed by the Assembly in January 2008.
The Committee for Finance and Personnel published a report in December 2007 when the Budget document was at draft stage. It included substantive submissions from all the Assembly’s Statutory Committees. The Committee has since received a formal response to the report and is continuing to monitor implementation of its recommendations, especially in relation to measures to improve financial management in Departments. There was some reference to that issue in the Minister’s statement today, and, last week, Members gave their opinions on the continuing problems.
The underlying spending plans for 2008-09 brought forward in the Main Estimates reflect the position established in the first year of the Executive’s Budget for 2008-2011. Although the Budget for 2008-2011 has been agreed, the Assembly and its Statutory Committees can have input into the reprioritisation of resources in 2008-09 via the in-year quarterly monitoring rounds.
The Committee recently wrote to DFP highlighting the need for Departments to brief Statutory Committees prior to making their monitoring round submissions, as it has not been happening consistently hitherto. Therefore, I hope that DFP takes the necessary steps to ensure that the issue is addressed, including making provision for Committee scrutiny in its timetables for monitoring rounds.
We need to return to an annual financial process as soon as possible, as it gives the Assembly and its Committees maximum opportunity to scrutinise and contribute to the Budget process. That will greatly enhance the consultation process.
Mr S Wilson: The Member and his Committee did a great job in highlighting the importance of Committees’ scrutinising Departments when it comes to in-year monitoring. Does he know how many Departments have made figures available to Committees for scrutiny for the June monitoring round?
Does he believe that only the Department of Education (DE) failed in that duty by supplying the information to the Committee one day before sending it to the Department of Finance and Personnel?
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel: I do not have access to all Committees’ reports. My own Committee made a complaint, and several other Departments failed to satisfy the commitments. We will ask DFP to address that matter in order to encourage mature working relationships between Departments and their Committees; that is a constructive and helpful process. For whatever reason — and I can speak only for the Department of Finance and Personnel — the relationship did not function on that occasion. However, the Committee received an explanation, an apology and an assurance that it will not happen during future processes, which I hope has occurred in all Departments.
I accept the Member’s point; it is vital to establish sound working relationships. Sometimes, difficult decisions have to be made, and those decisions have greater authority if the relevant Committee has access to detailed information in advance — not to make the Minister’s job more difficult but to understand the rationale behind recommendations.
DFP officials are considering Budget processes to ensure that, in future years, we have earliest possible sight of the indicative information on which the Executive will develop their spending projections. Moreover, the Committee for Finance and Personnel is considering whether an inquiry on that matter is necessary and hopes to be able to outline recommendations to the Minister soon.
The Committee for Finance and Personnel forwarded all the information on the excess vote for DHSSPS for 2006-07 to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety for its consideration. The Comptroller and Auditor General reported on that matter, and it was the subject of an investigation by the Public Accounts Committee. That Committee recommended that the excess requirement of £7·2 million should be provided by the Assembly through an excess vote. Therefore, on behalf of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, I support both motions. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Storey: The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel correctly highlighted several issues that should be given particular consideration by the House. As the Minister mentioned, bringing this matter to the House is difficult. The finance issue — whether personal or related to Northern Ireland — is huge, and it is important that we understand how to engage with the budgetary process.
The programme of work for Statutory Committees in the Assembly should include a clear identification of methods to scrutinise how Departments prioritise and spend finances. The Chairperson of the Committee for Education already mentioned the difficulties encountered by his Committee when that information was not supplied. Furthermore, the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel referred to problems with the lack of information given to the Committee in order to allow it to offer meaningful input. Ministers will, undoubtedly, want to engage fully with the Committee that has a statutory responsibility to scrutinise them and their Departments.
However, if we are to believe that that is to be the case, the Ministers and the Departments have a duty and a responsibility to prove it, and to furnish the relevant Committee with information in a timely manner so that we can see how that money is being prioritised and how the bids for that monitoring round have been highlighted.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel spoke about a return to an annual financial process. We all have concerns about accelerated passage, not only with respect to the Budget, but for other Bills that have been presented to the House. As a legislature, we must not use accelerated passage as a quick fix or as a way to circumnavigate certain situations. There are times, when, unfortunately, it has to be used. However, the financial processes of the House will be improved if the financial timetable is such that the Committees and the House can scrutinise the Budget and the financial arrangements and management of Departments.
The Minister mentioned the training that would be provided by DFP for the Departments and their staff. I suggest that it might also be advantageous for that training to be extended to Members. There is a huge amount of learning and experience that we should seek to acquire when it comes to accurately and effectively dealing with budgetary issues. I support the motion.
Mr Beggs: As the Minister said, the Budget was agreed in January 2008, and today’s vote is part of the technical process that gives legislative authority for that expenditure. I thank the departmental officials who recently briefed the Committee for Finance and Personnel on the technical adjustments that have occurred in the Budget report that has been presented to us in the Main Estimates booklet.
The officials pointed to some additional Peace II funding and some transfers of functions among Departments. Superannuation funding has been transferred from annually managed expenditure to the system of departmental expenditure limits, and all Members would agree that some additional background information on such issues would be useful. However, we trust that our civil servants, who have been trained and have the responsibility for those areas, and are taking the right decisions. There are concerns about the additional the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) funding, and an extra £266·9 million for Northern Ireland Water, which was indicated in the Budget but now appears in the departmental expenditure plans.
There are a number of questions to be asked about changes that have occurred in the detailed Estimates, some beyond the control of the Assembly and the Civil Service. For example, will the plans of the capital realisation task force be affected by the changes in the property market? In our plans, we have proposed to sell off certain assets in order to reinvest and create assets that are required. Will there be any long-term implications for that policy as a result of the changes in the property market? Can the capital investment plans be delivered, or will they have to be curtailed as a result of the likelihood of reduced funding from the sale of assets?
How will the recent disclosure of the dramatically reduced value of the DARD asset at Crossnacreevy be affected? I was shocked to learn at the weekend that an asset that had been valued at £200 million is now estimated to be worth about £6 million.
That change in value creates a significant black hole, and difficulties may arise from the £194 million shortfall. Will £90 million still be available to fund the farm nutrient management scheme, which is essential if we are to meet the European directive’s requirements? How will that scheme be funded? How did such an overestimate of the value of a Government asset occur? There has been a failure of huge proportions. How will other capital-expenditure plans be affected by the shortfall?
During the debate on the draft Budget, the underfunding of children’s services was highlighted. Other Members and I welcomed the fact that additional moneys were made available in the final Budget for projects that had been funded previously by the Executive programme fund for children. I was disappointed to discover subsequently that many laudable projects in areas of need have been awarded reduced funding. Some projects, such as breakfast and after-school clubs, have not been awarded long-term funding at all; they have not been mainstreamed.
I appreciate that, at this stage, in-year monitoring is likely to be the mechanism used to try to address some of those issues. However —
Mr Weir: Does the Member agree that that is not only a question of the overall Budget that the Executive allocate, but also of departmental prioritisation? Breakfast clubs are, essentially, the responsibility of the Department of Education. If the Department were to reprioritise and target at breakfast clubs some of the money that it wastes in other areas, there would be sufficient funding for them.
Mr Beggs: I fully concur with the Member’s point. When additional moneys were made available, I thought that they would go to the many laudable projects that have had positive results. Such projects address areas of need by giving young people a step onto the educational ladder and providing additional childcare, which, perhaps, enables parents to return to work and give their children a positive model of working to better their families through their own efforts. I was disappointed to find that such projects remain under threat.
As yet, there has been no ministerial announcement of plans to deal with the children’s funding that had been channelled through PlayBoard to benefit some 57 projects and 2,800 children in areas of need. I should have thought that most people recognised the importance of early-years learning and the fact that giving our young people that additional step on the educational ladder is hugely significant. Perhaps the whole area of funding early-years education has somehow become lost in the more divisive education debate that has taken priority.
Mr O’Dowd: As recent publicity surrounding PlayBoard has targeted the Department of Education, the Member may not be aware that it has since come to light, via departmental officials, that funding for PlayBoard is the Department of Health’s responsibility. It is hoped that that Department will make a more positive announcement about PlayBoard later this week.
Mr Beggs: The Member has just illustrated the strange ways in which our Departments and Ministers work. The junior Ministers assured the Assembly that, as a result of the allocation of additional funds, projects that had previously been funded under the children’s fund would not be at risk and should not suffer. It is entirely wrong that Ministers should argue. Rather, the junior Ministers, who have responsibility for children’s issues, should bring together the relevant people.
The Member said that PlayBoard is the responsibility of the Department of Health. It is clear that responsibility for childcare was transferred to the Department of Education in 2006. There is no great benefit in having arguments across the Chamber. The main issue is that, in removing children’s funding from the central funding body, the legs have somehow come off the stool. The Department of Education has not accepted its responsibility for childcare or made it a priority, and funding from the children’s fund has come to an end.
Long-term childcare funding must be resolved in a manner that assists our children. Verbal disputes across the Chamber or attempts at political point-scoring do not benefit those children. I want the matter to be resolved in a fashion that provides long-term benefits and better life opportunities for children and parents in areas of need. That would contribute to a reduction in child poverty, because education can benefit everyone.
Mrs D Kelly: The Member will be pleased to hear that at a recent meeting of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, it was made very clear that the Department of Education has responsibility for childcare.
Mr Beggs: The Member illustrates the need for the Executive to sort things out. If there is no clear way of identifying responsibility, let the junior Ministers resolve the matter. The Executive could create a new central funding mechanism to enable resolution to take place. If that spares the blushes of those Ministers who missed this element of funding, I will be content, as long as the funding continues; that is most important. I am thankful that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s Estimate ensures that there will be three month’s funding for those childcare projects, even though childcare does not fall under its departmental responsibility.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.
Mr Beggs: I support the Supply resolution for the 2006-07 excess vote. We should pay that sum and hope that such a failing does not occur in the future.
Mr O’Loan: We are debating the finances for this financial year. The Assembly will not have forgotten the concerns that I and my party expressed in the debates on the Programme for Government and the Budget. I will repeat those concerns and, indeed, emphasise some of them because it is clear —
Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?
Mr O’Loan: It is very early in my speech, but I am always prepared to give way.
Mr Storey: Does the Member’s party support its Minister wholeheartedly, given that that Minister went through the lobbies with the rest of the Members of the House and voted for the Budget? She did not take the same cowardly stance as her party, which abdicated its responsibility and voted against the Budget.
Mr O’Loan: I thank the Member for his intervention and, indeed, it will do no harm to clarify the matter. My party has no concerns on this issue. This form of Government requires Ministers to behave in a particular way, which the Minister for Social Development did. My party was totally united in its stance. We had serious concerns about the Programme for Government and the Budget and we still have those concerns.
Good government is not just about money; we need a coherent system of government that is joined together and has a shared approach. Is that what we witnessed in last week’s events? Within OFMDFM, Sinn Féin has, for some time, been very unhappy with the outcomes of government and its domination by the DUP.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr O’Loan: Last week, we saw the OK corral behaviour of Sinn Féin Members. They rode their horses up to the corral, but then — having looked into the eyes of those opposite — quickly turned and high-tailed it out of town. [Laughter.]
Although we can see the comedy in what happened, we are entitled to ask whether that bodes well for future Government here or for the coherent government that we need.
We have major concerns over the ability of those two parties to deliver a coherent strategy of Government based on a shared society. As I said, we expressed our concerns previously about aspects of the Budget. Other Members of my party will detail that, but I want to headline some of those concerns.
We are concerned about the extent to which the Budget is predicated upon efficiency savings. As those begin to work through, we see major concerns from around the community about cuts in front-line services — only today, we see significant representation from trade unions that have come to this place to voice their concerns.
In our education system, we are seeing the biggest change to secondary education for decades — if the Minister ever gets there. There is no budgetary allocation in relation to that, and there is no greater clarity on the policy resolution of that issue than there was when we debated the Budget. That is a major worry in the community among primary-school staff and among parents. It is not credible that such a dramatic change will be cost-neutral, and we are entitled to question the Budget on that issue.
The extended schools programme has been debated, and it is absolutely vital that the disadvantaged get a good start on the educational ladder. The Minister of Education has said that she has not had the budget for that and that she has gone repeatedly to the Minister of Finance and Personnel and that money has not been made available.
Mr Storey: Will the Member accept that that is not accurate? The Minister of Finance and Personnel has clarified that on those occasions when the Minister of Education asked for additional finance, additional money was given.
The issue has not been that the DFP Minister has refused to give money; the issue has been the inability of the Education Minister to prioritise in a way that is to the best advantage of the educational system. That was proven by the fact that in the monitoring round, the Minister gave £50 million back to DFP.
Mr O’Loan: The Member makes valid points as to the use of money within that Department, but the fact is that money was not available to continue that very necessary programme.
I was referring to asset sales and how vital they are to the Budget. In the current context of changes in property values, that is uncertain, and it is difficult to be confident in the Minister’s — or the former Minister’s — assurance that all is OK on that front.
I will mention one or two the Department for Social Development (DSD) issues — not to the detriment of other Departments — but clearly money for housing — social housing in particular — is hugely dependent on asset sales. That includes the problem that is now making itself transparent, which is the drying-up of Housing Executive house sales.
Fuel poverty is a greater problem than it was five or six months ago. We are facing a winter of even higher fuel prices, and it is not going too far to apply the word “crisis” to what is ahead of us; it is a real crisis in many homes, and it is imperative that the Executive address that.
We must say to central Government in Westminster that there needs to be an increase — and a substantial one —in the winter fuel payment. All parties need to do what they can there, but we should do what we can within our own sphere of control — to put it simply, more money must be put into the warm homes scheme.
There is a huge and unresolved problem in relation to water charges. There are clear concerns that the Minister is going for a separate water bill and a very big one — up to £950 when those charges are fully realised. There will be no consistency in charges for identical water usage between two houses. The system is fundamentally unfair. There is a real worry among those who are on fixed, low incomes about the further burden that is evidently coming their way.
I have concerns about the quality of much of our governance. We face a major challenge, and that needs the highest quality of government.
I refer Members to an interview in yesterday’s ‘Sunday Independent’ with Professor Brendan Drumm, the chief executive of the Health Service Executive. I recommend that article to any student of government. Professor Drumm discusses how best to create a well-working health system, but his comments range wider than that. Health is of huge importance, and accounts for 50% of our Budget. It is a vital and emotive issue. The title of the article is:
“It’s not about more beds or more money, it is about accountability”.
Brendan Drumm addresses how to get the best out of the money that is invested in our public services — and there are few greater questions for the Assembly.
Clear evidence is provided in the article that one unit in the Health Service can perform dramatically better than another, sometimes with less financial input. There is a need for a more efficient structure, based on clear chains of accountability. That opens the major issue of where accountability should rest — to what degree with professional managers, and to what extent with our political system. There is a lesson for all good public services: we must be able to create and support good, independent scrutiny and management.
In that vein, I wish to express very grave concerns about one recent ministerial decision: the refusal of the Environment Minister — or should I say “the then Environment Minister” — to create an independent environmental protection agency. The Minister saw the need for independence, and she provided for some elements of independence, but did not go the whole and absolutely necessary way of creating an independent agency. That was the wrong signal to send out about the quality of government.
Mr S Wilson: I have made a list of around seven areas that the Member has identified as needing more expenditure, yet he is now going one step further and saying that, in order to have what he calls “quality of government”, we should have an independent environmental agency, which even its own supporters have said would be costly to Northern Ireland.
Dr Farry: I will address Sammy Wilson’s point later on. I believe that he is the incoming Minister of the Environment.
The Alliance Party has already made clear its major concerns about public expenditure in general in Northern Ireland, and specifically the Executive’s first Budget. We voted against the Budget when it was formally debated several months ago, and, as the formal process of turning that flawed Budget into reality continues, we will once again state our objections. If, however, my party does not force repeated Divisions, I must emphasise that that should not be mistaken for consent.
I wish to highlight some of the problems with public expenditure in Northern Ireland. We are signing off on an annual Budget of £16 billion — over half of that is due to be technically authorised today. Of that £16 billion, around £7 billion comes through subvention from the UK Treasury. We are dependent on external assistance for almost half of our expenditure. Our local tax base is very small. The table set out in Varney II shows how serious this issue is — not just in the context of the regions of the United Kingdom, but internationally.
Our public sector is large, but our biggest problem is our private sector, which is simply too small. It is right to give top priority to growing our private sector. Although it is important to put into perspective the size of our public sector, there are still major problems that we have to confront.
In a wide range of aspects of life in Northern Ireland — social, economic and environmental — our society does not keep up with new demands by the Northern Ireland public for investments that are delivered elsewhere. Clearly, there are major questions regarding the efficiency and effectiveness of public expenditure. They include, but go beyond, the costs of division; however, as you might expect, I will begin my speech on that theme.
The Alliance Party emphasises that major distortions of public expenditure and opportunity costs arise from attempting to manage a divided society, rather than from investing in high-quality shared facilities, goods and services for the entire community. The party held a positive meeting with the outgoing Finance Minister on that subject; and its members are working on a paper for DFP officials, which, I hope, will be with them before the summer recess. However, it is a matter of continued regret that addressing the costs of division is not a core theme of the Budget and is not a feature of its approach to efficiency savings. Investment in a shared future is required, and that will lead to significant savings for society overall.
On the topic of efficiency savings in general, I make one important point. The Alliance Party fully supports the concept of efficiency savings. We believe that the 3% targets are achievable and that more can be achieved. In that respect, we support the role of PEDU. Greater targets are routinely sought and achieved each year in the private sector. However, for my party, efficiency savings must be about increasing productivity and finding new and creative ways of doing things to free up resources from outmoded purposes or activities for reinvestment in new policies and practices. However, in Northern Ireland, efficiency savings too readily become cuts. Rather than doing things differently, Departments and public bodies carry on as before, but try to do the same with less.
I want to explore the inefficiencies in the way that we spend our money and what we miss out on as a consequence. With regard to the environment, which Mr O’Loan and Mr Sammy Wilson discussed, we have recently been told that one reason we cannot have an independent environmental protection agency is the cost: the agency would cost some £2·6 million to set up and some £600,000 per annum to operate. Those are relatively small sums; however, the questions on which we must focus are the costs and consequences — financially, economically and environmentally — of not having an independent environmental protection agency. Obviously, there will still be problems, such as infraction proceedings, even if we have an environmental protection agency. However, the issue is one of scale; it is wrong to see it as a black-or-white choice. We need an environmental protection agency to have more efficient and cost-effective Government.
I give way to the incoming Minister.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member accept that, in the case of the independent Scottish Environmental Protection Agency it was concluded that, the process of decision-making was costly and became more cumbersome, and the Environmental Protection Agency was totally out of touch with local communities? If the Member looks for a different way of doing things, surely he will not consider one that makes things worse?
Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his points. We all wish to learn lessons from how other societies have introduced and operated environmental protection agencies. However, that does not detract from my central point. We need an environmental protection agency to challenge more efficiently how we conduct environmental business. If we do not have one, we will pay the economic and environmental cost.
In respect of transport, we place a heavy emphasis on roads and private cars at the expense of public transport. In his statement this morning, the Minister for Regional Development did not depart from that script. We have a major congestion problem, particularly in greater Belfast. Other societies are able to maintain a much more sustainable balance between public and private transport; there is no reason why we cannot follow suit. Incredibly, the current 10-year investment strategy puts 80% of new investment into roads — that is well out of line with the practices of most of our competitors. I fail to see how that will help us to rebalance our economy, never mind make us more environmentally sustainable.
We have natural strengths in the creative arts. However, it is staggering that we spend less per capita on culture than the UK average and well below our neighbours in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.
Surely proper investment in the arts should be viewed as an essential element of growing and transforming our economy?
There are also huge inefficiencies in the education system. Despite the large budget that is allocated to the Department of Education, there are major problems, for example, with the funding of the Youth Service and resource allocation to primary schools. To put it simply: there is a high level of education expenditure per capita but a low level of expenditure per pupil. There are major inefficiencies in the schools estate that are leading to distortions in expenditure. Too much money is spent on school buildings at the expense of investment in pupils and staff.
The Alliance Party is concerned at the continued absence of a sustainable schools policy. It believes that a system is needed that values a range of options for shared schools. More specifically, the party is concerned at how integrated schools are perceived. Integrated schools, whether newbuild or transformed, are the most sustainable form of education, socially, educationally and economically. However, at present, rather than being viewed as part of the solution, they are seen as being part of the problem and are regarded as a threat to the existing schools system. However, it is the schools system that is inefficient, so we are missing an easy solution.
The Alliance Party has made the point that, in the Budget, Northern Ireland is flatlining in comparison with the budgets allocated to health elsewhere in these islands. The health budget is already the highest per capita in the UK, which, sadly, reflects our relative need.
The highest level of increase will go to health, as well as the highest level of new resources. However, none of that hides the reality that we are simply not keeping up and that, by 2011, our health budget will be £200 million short of what we need to keep pace with our neighbours. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has settled for far too little in his little political campaign.
Furthermore, attempts to plug the gap in our Health Service with monitoring rounds are flawed, for two reasons. First, monitoring round resources have no impact on baselines. Secondly, the automatic first referral to the Health Service distorts the monitoring process and the necessary redistribution of resources across the entire system. Efficiency savings in the Health Service are important. However, such savings are viewed by the general population as cuts. Indeed, that reality is confronting elected representatives across Northern Ireland — including DUP MLAs — as expressed recently in local newspapers.
Given the rising costs of drugs, technology and our ageing population, we need to keep up with the pace of investment elsewhere in the world. Efficiency savings in health are necessary and will assist in keeping up with that pace. However, those efficiency savings must be complemented with new resources and investment in areas such as mental health and free personal care for elderly people.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr S Wilson): I wish to highlight some issues about the Department of Education’s sizeable budget of over £2 billion. The Committee has concerns that, although over £2 billion is available for education in Northern Ireland, only 62% of that ever reaches schools. That figure is substantially lower than in other parts of the UK; in England, for example, 80% of the money available for education is delegated to schools. Many problems in our education system could be addressed if there were greater delegation.
Departmental officials have told the Committee that the operation of several education initiatives means that moneys are withheld from schools. Some £190 million is ring-fenced for those initiatives, which represents 19% of the money that is allocated to our schools.
All the school principals who appeared before the Committee said that they would prefer that the money currently being held centrally for initiatives were delegated to them. They could then spend the money as they see fit in their own schools. Those principals also said that it was time-consuming to research those initiatives, complete the highly bureaucratic application forms, and to monitor, check and evaluate.
Several school principals said that some initiatives require them to buy computers — which they do not need, but they do not want to pass up the opportunity — or to engage in activities that they do not consider to be of priority, but which qualify them for the initiative. The Department must address that situation. The Committee has asked the Department to highlight the initiatives and to establish how many of them could be withdrawn without any adverse effect on the quality of what goes on in the schools, thus releasing money to the school budgets.
The Member for North Down Dr Farry said that one of the ways of making the budget work better was to do things differently. In education, for instance, he said that we spend too much money on buildings — and therein lies a contradiction. We do spend too much money on buildings; there are a lot of half-empty buildings that require money. However, Dr Farry’s simple solution is to build more. That is the meat on the bones of the Alliance Party’s verbiage. Dr Farry said that we should increase productivity, and that means looking at outmoded methods and doing things differently.
The only two examples that he provided of how things could be done differently were to build integrated schools — when there is overcapacity in the existing schools system — and to set up a costly independent environmental protection agency. It is all very well to utter fine words about increased productivity, doing things differently and testing the boundaries of how money is being spent —
Dr Farry: Will the Member give way?
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: I will in a minute or two.
However, when one examines how things could be done differently, one finds that the different way will lead to less efficiency, more waste and greater spending.
Dr Farry: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. The advocacy of integrated schools is based on the fact that enrolments are falling and the sad reality that many schools across Northern Ireland are unsustainable and will, in fact, have to be closed. Does the Member agree that in a typical village in Northern Ireland in which a controlled primary school and a Catholic maintained primary school, for instance, are under threat of closure due to falling enrolments, it makes sense to build a single shared school for the community, rather than to bus two sets of children to neighbouring towns?
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: I am sure that everyone in the Chamber will agree that that is an admirable solution, but that is not integrated education à la the Alliance Party. In the House — and at local level — Alliance Party representatives have said that, not only should there be a Catholic school and a controlled school, but a third school should be built. That is what most of the Alliance Party advocacy of integrated education that I have heard consists of, and it leads to a greater waste of money. It is not the way forward, and it will not lead to greater productivity.
Mr Weir: I heard Dr Farry heckling from the side when Sammy Wilson was commenting on the building of more schools in the integrated sector. Closing schools is the Alliance Party’s position. Does the Member look forward, as I do, to the Member for North Down’s public statement containing the names of the schools in North Down that he would close?
Dr Farry: [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr Weir: Does he believe that the Member will not be able to put his money where his mouth is on this issue?
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: He will not, probably. The comment that he made from his sedentary position is not true, because, according to officials from the Department of Education and the South Eastern Education and Library Board, Bangor alone has 1,500 more school places than are needed. That is the context that we are looking at. I could give many other examples of representations that have been made to the Committee. In one case, there was a surplus of 2,000 places, but an Alliance Party Member suggested that another school be built.
That is not the way forward and does not represent a better use of education money. However, alternatives must be examined.
The second issue that the Committee highlights is the current in-year monitoring. It is a great pity that the Department could not bring along its proposed bids to the Department of Finance for Committee scrutiny. In the event that other Committees are having the same experience, a warning should go out from this debate about the duty which rests with Departments. The recommendation was that, as part of in-year monitoring, Departments should come along with bids to see whether the Committee would support them. That is not happening, even though it might be helpful to Ministers to have Committee backing for some bids.
As far as the Department of Education is concerned, one of the things highlighted by the Committee is the need for the bid for extended schools to be met through in-year monitoring. I know that, as the Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs pointed out, that is not the best way of doing it, but if an extension of another year can be obtained through that mechanism, it will be better than the current situation, in which extended schools are being cut.
Mr Beggs: Will the Member accept that it is not only extended schools that are provided in primary schools? There are other after-school clubs, and breakfast clubs, which are also provided by the voluntary sector.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: I accept that. I am making the point that, while it is not the ideal way of ensuring that the extended schools programme is financed for another year, it is better than the present situation, in which many face being cut totally and some get only a percentage of their expenditure. It was another area of concern for the Committee.
The last area about which the Committee expressed concern was the huge discrepancy in spending between primary and secondary schools. I hope that many Members will take part in a debate on a motion that will be brought to this House on the importance of getting money skewed towards primary schools in order that the disadvantage that is experienced by many youngsters in their first years in school is addressed. Later problems can be avoided through emphasis on remedial action in early years. That is something that I would like to see, and it can be done within the existing budget by looking for efficiencies — different ways of spending available money. That is how to address the huge spending gap, especially for primary schools.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Both these motions will enable Departments to draw down the necessary resources from the Consolidated Fund to deliver services. That is an important part of the Budget process, as the Main Estimates and Excess Vote resolutions are the next stages in ensuring that money goes to the various spending authorities. The process also sets limits on receipts that will be brought in, and provides authority to use those against various services.
Great concern has been expressed inside and outside this Chamber recently about the level of underspend in the budgets of Departments, which the Minister mentioned in her statement. Any form of accounting involves a margin of error, but the financial management of Departments is an area in which performance could be improved.
In essence, we are guardians of public money. Therefore, in their Committee and Assembly roles, all Members have a responsibility to hold Departments to account if local people are not receiving services to which they are entitled. Departments need to work closely with Committees to ensure that they meet those targets and to provide information on time rather than at the last minute, which has sometimes been the case.
Other Members have commented on the recent upsurge in the general cost of living, including the price of fuel and food, which has created public concern. Sometimes, the cost of living is talked about in a way which makes it seem very abstract.
For example, a meal for a family of five now costs almost £3 extra, meaning that such families are spending an extra £3 on every meal. Therefore, the issue is of real concern for people. The Executive and Departments need to be innovative in introducing measures to deal with that issue, such as working alongside energy companies to supply social tariffs and finding better ways to spend their budgets.
We are facing a period where essential front-line services that are delivered by community and voluntary organisations are being put at risk due to a lack of funding. Again, sometimes, our understanding of those services can be abstract, but they are delivered to people in local communities. When organisations that are closing due to a lack of funding see that such a large amount of money has gone unspent in departmental budgets over the past year, they have every right to be concerned. That is because some of that money was allocated to those services but was not distributed to the organisations that would have delivered them.
The Executive — along with Departments — have a responsibility to ensure the delivery of their priorities as set out in the Programme for Government. The procurement guidelines that were launched recently offer an opportunity to deliver the social outcomes that are outlined in the investment strategy, thus ensuring delivery of equality of opportunity and tackling poverty and disadvantage. That is what we need to be doing.
Mrs D Kelly: The Member is quite right when she says that those priorities should be foremost in all our minds. However, does she not agree that decisions about them should be made in this House, rather than by people running to Downing Street?
Ms J McCann: I thank the Member for her intervention; however, I believe that we all have a responsibility to ensure that people are not going cold or hungry. I support both motions and believe that they can be seen as a first step towards achieving our objectives. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McQuillan: I thank the Minister for the hard and diligent work that he has done in preparing the Budget and the motion, which I support. I am fully aware that some Members have constantly moaned and groaned about the Budget and the departmental allocations. It is my hope that, today, those Members will come back to reality and support the motion to ensure that the Programme for Government that has been agreed by the Executive and the Assembly can be implemented.
The Budget has provided the Executive with an opportunity to improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland by allocating resources to high-priority areas, where the funds will yield the greatest benefit. Individual Ministers will determine how the resources from the Budget are distributed in the context of the competing needs and priorities in their Departments. I have no doubt that those are vastly distinct from the priorities and the local understanding that direct rule Ministers had.
With the required approvals granted, it would be an act of complete stupidity to reject the motion. Although there is no doubt that that would appeal to some, it would ensure that all Departments were unable to carry through the programmes that they have devised according to their budget allocations. Critics of the Budget would have a few questions to answer as to how such an approach would best serve the people of Northern Ireland.
I wish to see the targets on the treatment of cancer met, the supply of new social housing achieved, and the development of our road and public transport continued. However, all that will be possible only if the Departments have the necessary funding. That is why it is essential that the motion is successful. Failure to agree the motion — especially after the recent important investment conference — would be a suicidal course of action for the Assembly, as it would damage prospective investors’ confidence in Northern Ireland. The party opposite has done enough damage to that confidence in the past few days. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the motion is agreed.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until that time. This debate will continue after Question Time, when the first Member called to speak will be Mr Dominic Bradley.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Office Of The First Minister And Deputy First Minister
Executive Committee: Cross-Community Votes
1. Mr Spratt asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for the number of times that a cross-community vote has been triggered at meetings of the Executive. (AQO 3872/08)
The First Minister (Mr P Robinson): Three cross-community votes have been triggered at meetings of the Executive. All occurred at the meeting of the Executive on 15 May 2008, and related to the same subject.
Mr Spratt: I welcome Mr Robinson to his first Question Time as First Minister.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Spratt: I congratulate him on his election as First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Will the First Minister confirm whether the Executive’s decision to proceed with a separate water charge from next April was taken unanimously?
The First Minister: First, I thank my colleague for his kind remarks and good wishes.
The Executive have dealt with around 228 issues since devolution in May 2007. There has been division on only four of those issues, of which only one has gone to a cross-community vote. None of the issues on which there was division included water charging.
That issue has come before the Executive on two occasions in two different ways. On the first occasion, it was as part of the premise on which Budget allocations were made. The Member will know that my Executive colleagues unanimously supported the Budget; there was no Division in the House either.
On the second — more recent — occasion, the Minister for Regional Development brought forward a paper on how those matters should be handled. Again, the Executive agreed to that without division.
Mr Kennedy: I also welcome the new First Minister to his position. Does the First Minister have any plans to convene an early meeting of the leaders of the political parties who are represented on the Executive?
The First Minister: I thank the Member for Newry and Armagh for his good wishes.
Today, I, as a party leader, wrote to the other party leaders — not only those who sit on the Executive, but those who sit in the House outside the Executive — indicating that I would welcome the opportunity to speak to them about matters relating to the Assembly and beyond. I hope to take account of what they have to say.
Neither the deputy First Minister nor I would avoid meeting other party leaders; we would certainly consider it. We welcome an exchange with all Members of the House. If all Members enter into discussions in a constructive manner, it may be very useful.
Mrs Long: I also welcome the new First Minister to the House. I wish him well for the future.
My question relates to the issue of collectivity in the Executive. Will the First Minister give us his assurances — amid the public controversy that is going on outside the House — that the Executive and OFMDFM are fully committed to their obligations to promote equality and good relations between the persons and groups listed under section 75 of Northern Ireland Act 1998, including the gay and lesbian community?
Some Members: Hear, hear.
The First Minister: The Executive have a good record on collectivity.
The figures that I outlined earlier would have done credit to any one-party Executive. The Executive have dealt with more than 228 issues; they had to vote on only four occasions in a straight vote, and once in a cross-community vote. Indeed, two of the issues in the straight voting were on the same matter, although voting took place on two separate occasions.
Very few issues have caused division in the Executive. They acted collectively on the key issues that have been brought to the Assembly; particularly those arising from the Programme for Government, which sets up the Assembly manifesto for the next three years. The Executive took the collective decision to move forward in that direction.
The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is legally obliged to ensure that no one is discriminated against in our society. Even if there were no legal obligation, I would be at the forefront in defending anyone who was being discriminated against. I know that my colleague the Member for Strangford would be alongside me in doing that. As far as the community is concerned, it is absolutely essential that there is equality for people. Equality of opportunity should be at the forefront in all our minds regarding all of these issues. My colleague from East Belfast has given me the opportunity to say that I totally deplore any attacks that take place on individuals, whether it is because of their religion, their politics or their way of life.
Planning Appeals Commission
2. Mr Weir asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for its assessment of the average time taken for a decision by the Planning Appeals Commission. (AQO 3865/08)
3. Mr Bresland asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail the budget of the Planning Appeals Commission for the last three years; and its budget for the next three years. (AQO 3848/08)
The First Minister: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 2 and 3 together.
In the past financial year, the average length of time taken to determine an appeal was 82 weeks. The delay in making decisions is due to the backlog of planning appeal cases that has amassed over recent years. That backlog is of considerable concern to the deputy First Minister and me. Consequently, significant additional financial resources have been committed to enable the chief commissioner to address the backlog of planning appeals.
The budget of the Planning Appeals Commission remained constant, at £1·858 million per annum, for the last three years, 2005 to 2008. During those years, the commission was only able to retain receipts of up to £56,000; £150,000; and £241,000 respectively. For the next three years, the budget figures are £2·368 million in the current financial year; £2·378 million for 2009-2010; and £2·396 million for 2010-11.
In addition, in each of those years, the commission will be able to retain receipts of £376,000 per annum. In short, the commission has been provided with the additional spending power of over £700,000 each year, which will allow it to recruit additional commissioners. Eight commissioners have been appointed in recent months, and a competition for a further 10 panel commissioners is underway. That will be followed by a further competition for commissioners in the autumn. The deputy First Minister and I will continue to keep the situation under close review.
Mr Weir: I add my congratulations to the First Minister on his first Question Time.
When the First Minister, in his previous capacity as Finance Minister, established the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU), he made the Planning Service one of its initial areas of focus. In light of the delays in the Planning Appeals Commission that he outlined today, does he believe that that aspect of the planning system should have an equal level of focus?
The First Minister: At the outset, it should be made clear that the Planning Appeals Commission is an independent body. Moreover, it is an independent body that seems to have a very high degree of respect. It is worth pointing out that when issues such as the review of public administration (RPA) were considered, virtually all of the parties fought hard to ensure that the Planning Appeals Commission would be retained as a separate and independent body.
There are not many bodies that are still capable of gaining the support of public representatives and the wider community despite having a growing list of backlog cases. People are supportive of the role that the Planning Appeals Commission performs.
There is a relationship between the Planning Service, and the cases that it deals with, and the Planning Appeals Commission. Very often, I found that people become fed up with the delay in the Planning Service and take their cases out of the normal planning routine after the appropriate number of months pass. They then put them to the Planning Appeals Commission because they think that that might be a faster route and fear that their cases might end up with the Planning Appeals Commission anyway. That adds to the burden.
The Planning Appeals Commission is an independent body, so it would be unhelpful and unwelcome were PEDU to burst through its doors and attempt to deal with the commission’s business. The Planning Appeals Commission is required to be fit for purpose. The deputy First Minister and I will do everything that we can to assist the commission to ensure that it reduces its backlog and is able to deal with matters more expeditiously.
Mr Bresland: What action have the Executive taken to deal with the problems that the Planning Appeals Commission faces?
The First Minister: I indicated that the former First Minister and the deputy First Minister recognised — presumably after discussions with the Planning Appeals Commission — that it needed further resources. The nice guy who used to be the Finance Minister readily acceded to that request, and, as a result, more funds have been allocated to the commission. However, I warn Members that a lead-in time is involved. Not only is recruitment needed — the Planning Appeals Commission has a rigorous appointment requirement, in order to ensure that its commissioners have the highest level of competence — but training then lasts for roughly one year. We will have to be patient. Even though the resources are there, and even though the Planning Appeals Commission has moved quickly to compose its recruitment panels, that requirement will remain for a long time, until trained commissioners are in post. There will be some delay, but the deputy First Minister and I will continue to review the matter.
Mr K Robinson: I, too, welcome the First Minister to his first Question Time and wish him well for the future.
I listened intently to how he described the improvements to the Planning Appeals Commission and look forward to seeing those work in practice. When considering the Planning Appeals Commission, will the First Minister ensure that, when they appear before the commission, members of the public are afforded the same rights that developers appear to have? A developer can introduce a full team of planning experts, tree experts, bat experts — you name it — plus legal representation. A member of the public feels at a severe disadvantage when appearing before the commission.
The First Minister: I take the Member’s point, although I emphasise that the Planning Appeals Commission is an independent body, so it must satisfy itself on the procedures that it adopts. Members of the public have the same opportunity as others to have legal representation or to bring in experts. However, the reality is somewhat different — members of the public will not have the same resources that are available to developers. Therefore, it is important that the Planning Appeals Commission attach appropriate weight to remarks made by members of the public who have concerns about planning applications. It must also take into consideration the fact that they do not have the same expertise behind them as developers have.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I, too, welcome the First Minister to his first Question Time in that capacity.
What action can the First Minister take in order to prioritise appeals for accommodation for severely disabled people? I was involved in an appeal recently that took up to a year and a half. That places a great deal of stress on young families with a severely disabled person in the household.
The First Minister: I can take no action at all. The independence of the Planning Appeals Commission is such that it would be inappropriate for the deputy First Minister and me to intervene in its caseload. However, I will draw the Member’s views to the commission’s attention. It may feel that fast-tracking is required in certain cases.
My clear message is that the Planning Appeals Commission is keen to deal expeditiously with all its cases. However, since 2003-04, the number of cases has roughly trebled. That level of increase is an indication that major planning applications will be submitted, particularly given the current circumstances in which we are coming out of a period of significant economic growth. Planning law requires public inquiries on the area plans, and that has also added significantly to the commission’s workload.
That combination of factors caused a considerable backlog of cases. In normal circumstances, the prioritisation of one type of application should not be an issue, but, until the backlog is cleared, there may be a case for the Planning Appeals Commission to consider whether any particularly sensitive cases should be prioritised and heard out of their normal order.
Capital Realisation Task Force Report
4. Mr Hilditch asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister if the Executive have considered the capital realisation task force report. (AQO 3885/08)
The First Minister: The Executive considered the report at their meeting on 21 January 2008. Work is under way to progress the report’s key recommendations, which are vital to ensuring the delivery of the entire investment strategy for Northern Ireland and achieving value for money from the assets base.
Mr Hilditch: In the light of the Prime Minister’s recent offer of asset sales and given the need for capital expenditure in Northern Ireland, will the First Minister agree that early progress on capital realisation is essential?
The First Minister: In the Budget and the investment strategy for Northern Ireland, as supported by the Assembly, assumptions were made about asset disposal and other block grant funding. Therefore, it is necessary to proceed with careful haste on any asset sales. I enter that slight caveat because the Executive’s task is to maximise the return from any asset disposal, and they must take account of the standing of the property market at any given time.
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also wish the First Minister well in his new role, and I wish the deputy Minister well in his continued role.
Will the First Minister identify the targets for the disposal of surplus assets in 2008-2011? Go raibh maith agat.
The First Minister: The capital realisation task force identified that the Executive could dispose of £300 million of additional assets. The Budget and investment strategy took into account £200 million of that, and care was taken not to allocate money beyond the total amount possible. In addition to that, the original figures had already taken into account £1·4 billion of asset disposal and capital receipts for the three-year period to 2010-11. That is a significant sum, and it requires all Departments to examine their timetables carefully to ensure that the capital is realised during the period of the CSR.
Mr O’Loan: I also extend my good wishes to the First Minister.
According to information that was given to the DARD Committee, a downward adjustment has reduced the valuation of the DARD-owned property at Crossnacreevy from £200 million to a mere £3 million to £6 million. Is the Minister not extremely concerned by that? How can the Assembly be confident that the Budget, on which the Programme for Government depends, will be delivered?
The First Minister: As someone whose background is in estate agency, I can tell the Member that any land or property is worth what a willing purchaser will pay for it on the open market. At present, there are not too many willing purchasers, and that has an impact on the price of any asset. However, the other factor is whether planning permission exists for any type of development on the site at Crossnacreevy, because the land is worth much less without it.
One of the issues that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Finance and Personnel will have to consider is whether to apply for planning permission, and sell with that permission, or whether to simply sell the site with a hoped-for value attached to it. The lower price clearly refers to the amount without planning permission for development.
Economic Investment Conference: Outcomes
5. Mr Gardiner asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to comment on the outcomes of the economic investment conference; and to detail its plans for other similar events. (AQO 3864/08)
The First Minister: The recent US/Northern Ireland investment conference was an enormous success. As well as the very significant dignitaries in attendance, 90 companies, represented by over 140 business leaders, were represented. At the conference, NYSE EuroNext and Cybersource announced new inward investments, which have the potential to create over 120 new high-quality jobs. Those announcements, along with major investments of some £77 million announced by Bombardier and Independent News and Media, aimed at safeguarding over 1,100 jobs, added to the success.
We are extremely encouraged by the positive reflections in the media on the immediate impact of the conference. Initial feedback from delegates is also very encouraging. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will be working hard over the coming months to capitalise on the success of the event. The full outcome of the conference will take some time to come to fruition. Invest Northern Ireland has put in place a comprehensive follow-up campaign. Since the conference has proven to be such a success, we consider it a model for potential future events in London and Dublin, to follow up with attendees and companies in those cities.
Mr Gardiner: I join with my colleagues in wishing the First Minister every good health in the post of heavy responsibility to which he has been appointed.
The so-called BRIC economies — Brazil, Russia, India and China — are all expanding economies. Would it be possible to organise an Asian investment conference, targeting China, Japan and India, along the lines of the US/Northern Ireland investment conference?
The First Minister: I appreciate the Member’s comments. My colleague, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, has already visited India, and spoke to me of the massive potential that he saw there. Having visited the Middle East with the Westminster Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs some years ago, I see the potential of that area of the world.
Invest NI will examine where it is appropriate to establish offices. I have no doubt that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will be quite happy to consider missions to those countries. I am quite sure that the deputy First Minister and I will be very happy to offer support in that area.
Mr Hamilton: I, too, warmly welcome the First Minister to his first Question Time in his new role.
The First Minister will be well aware of the importance of delivering the type of jobs that those who attended the conference can provide in helping the Executive to achieve its targets on increasing productivity and closing the gross value added gap. Will he comment on what steps he has taken to encourage employment in Northern Ireland from Bombardier’s CSeries project?
The First Minister: The Member is right that the Programme for Government prioritised economic growth, which requires us to aim to secure high-value-added jobs. That is clearly one of the factors that will have an effect on improving our gross value added (GVA). Securing better exports improves our GVA, and Bombardier is one of the corporations that clearly has a massive export potential for Northern Ireland.
The deputy First Minister and I have spoken with the Prime Minister about the Bombardier CSeries. I have had a number of conversations with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State on that issue. I know that both DFP and DETI have been in touch with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) in London, and Invest Northern Ireland has been holding regular meetings. I understand that there is a very important meeting later this week on that issue.
Clearly, there are commercial issues to consider, which perhaps limit what I can say on the matter; but the CSeries would be very important for the development of Bombardier in Belfast, for potential jobs and, indeed, for the long tenure that those jobs would have.
Mr Neeson: Like other Members, I wish the First Minister well for the future in his new role.
As he realises, the organisation of the investment conference depended largely on interdepartmental co-operation. Economic growth is not the responsibility of just one Department. Will he assure me that he will ensure that that interdepartmental co-operation will continue to try to attract new investment into Northern Ireland?
The First Minister: The deputy First Minister and I are committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland’s investment potential is maximised. I indicated that the investment conference, which invited people from North America to Northern Ireland, will be a good model for further conferences. The deputy First Minister and I are examining the possibility of conferences in London and Dublin to follow up some of the contacts that were made during the investment conference.
The Member is correct: all Departments played a part. DEL was deeply involved in the event. DCAL, DETI and my former Department were also involved, as was OFMDFM, which had a central role. I am sure that DARD was also involved, because I recall that issues arose with regard to food. Had I not mentioned that, the Minister would have pointed it out quickly when she got an opportunity. Therefore, all of the Departments threw their weight behind the project in a joined-up way. I am convinced that they will do the same in any future event.
Ms J McCann: Will the First Minister outline targets set by the Executive to ensure that any future investment as a result of the conference will tackle deprivation and social and economic disadvantage?
The First Minister: Having been in the job for only a matter of a few days, one conversation that I have had with the deputy First Minister identified deprivation and need as an area that we have both prioritised and in which we share a desire that focus and energy should be applied. Too often, the Programme for Government might be identified as having a trickle-down effect; that when the economy is boosted, ultimately, people will get jobs and that will assist them. The deputy First Minister and I both believe that deprivation must be tackled immediately at ground-floor level. That will certainly be part of our aim. Of course, the location of those jobs will have an impact. There is no better way out of deprivation than to get people into employment.
Northern Ireland currently has a higher level of employment than has ever been the case before. It has one of the lowest levels of unemployment of any part of the British Isles. Therefore, opportunities exist. If additional higher-value-added jobs can be brought into Northern Ireland, I believe that the tide will rise for everyone.
Visit of the President of the United States
6. Lord Browne asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what is its assessment of the forthcoming visit of the President of the United States. (AQO 3850/08)
The First Minister: The decision by the President of the United States to visit Belfast during his forthcoming tour of European capital cities is a clear demonstration of his personal commitment to Northern Ireland. We look forward to welcoming him here on Monday 16 June. We were pleased to learn that the first lady will accompany him. We hope that the visit will attract a significant level of positive media coverage in the United States and around the world, and that it will help to promote Northern Ireland as a place in which to invest and as a tourist destination. The timing of the visit, soon after the investment conference, is particularly useful for Invest NI, which will be able to use the attendant publicity to maintain a positive image of Northern Ireland with corporate America.
Lord Browne: I also want to congratulate the First Minister on his appointment and wish him well in his office. I also welcome his statement on the visit of President Bush to Northern Ireland, particularly to Parliament Buildings at Stormont. It is an historic occasion. I am sure that the Assembly wants to express again its sympathy with the American people on the great loss of life that they suffered on 9/11 and its solidarity with President Bush in his continuing efforts to protect his people from future acts of terror.
Will the First Minister use the opportunity of the President’s visit to reinforce the message that Northern Ireland is a good place in which to invest?
The First Minister: The community recognises the great sacrifice that has been made by many Americans, and the day in history to which the Member referred will long be regarded as being one of its darkest moments. Perhaps this is an opportunity for me to pass on condolences from the people of Northern Ireland to the families of the three soldiers who were killed in Helmand province. We all extend our sympathy to those families.
It is important to note that the President personally wished to make the visit to demonstrate his support for the devolved Administration. That identifies the fact that Northern Ireland is open for business.
Regeneration: Rural Villages and Towns
1. Mr McElduff asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail her Department’s remit for helping to regenerate rural villages and towns. (AQO 3910/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): My Department’s remit on rural settlements that have a population of fewer than 4,500 is met mainly through the village renewal measure of the new rural development programme for 2007-2013. Along with other measures in priority 3 of the programme, the village renewal measure will be implemented by local action groups working in partnership with council clusters.
The types of activities that are to be funded will depend on the priorities in the area strategy of the partnership and the types of applications that are received from the local community. I am confident that that measure will provide an excellent opportunity for the enhancement of rural settlements.
Members will be interested in the financial allocations to the seven council clusters of the first £50 million of funding for axis-3 measures, which have now been correctly calculated, based on population and deprivation. The allocations are: £6,211,991 for the north-east; £11,259,048 for the north-west; £12,721,715 for mid Ulster; £9,570,714 for the Craigavon cluster; £6,592,695 for Down; £1,793,712 for the Antrim cluster; and £1,850,124 for the Lisburn cluster.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister confirm that the amount of funding that is to be allocated to the north-west is an increased figure on an earlier announcement? I am particularly interested in whether the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) definition of “urban” and “rural” is the same as that understood by the Department for Social Development.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The initial figures were based on a miscalculation, and the Department has taken steps to address that.
For the purposes of the rural development programme, “rural” is defined as all areas that fall outside of the statutory development limit of towns with a population in excess of 4,500 inhabitants. However, the programme will retain the flexibility to support projects that are located in more urban settings, where the projects will principally benefit rural towns and where a strong case can be made for them.
Some groups have found that they have fallen between two stools in relation to funding, and the Minister for Social Development and I have asked officials to schedule an early meeting so that we can discuss and address that important issue.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for her response. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the good work that has been carried out in many Protestant areas by rural groups. Can she provide an assurance that she intends to maintain, or indeed to enhance, funding to rural groups in Protestant areas?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: As the Member knows, a pilot scheme has been running on that. As I said, the priorities that local action groups place in their clusters will decide how funding is allocated. That is a bottom-up approach, and local communities must take ownership to have flexibility in their decision-making process. The pilot schemes that I have mentioned are ongoing.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá a fhios againn gur diúltaíodh don mholadh a bhí ag Comhlucht Forbartha Foircille don seansuíomh míleata sa cheantar. An dtig liom a fhiafraí den Aire cén straitéis atá aici leis an mholadh sin a choinneáil ar an bhord nuair atá seans níos fearr ann anois go mbronnfar an suíomh sin ar an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin saor in aisce?
Given the Department of Finance and Personnel’s rejection of the Forkhill and District Development Association’s plans for the vacated army site, and considering the fact that there is a greater likelihood that such sites will be gifted to the Executive, what strategy does the Minister have to ensure that that proposal is kept alive?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: DARD’s involvement in the development of that project fits with the overall theme of the ‘Rural Strategy 2007-2013’, which is to diversify the rural economy, protect the rural environment and sustain rural communities.
In addition, the project meets one of the key aims of the Department’s ‘Strategic Plan 2006-2011’:
“to strengthen the social and economic infrastructure of rural areas”.
Furthermore, it meets with the aims of the Programme for Government, which was agreed by the Executive in January 2008, and in which DARD was charged to:
“Help rural communities improve the physical, economic and social infrastructure of their areas.”
Therefore, given that the project is consistent with the Department’s plans, I would like to see it come to fruition.
Botulism in Armagh
2. Mr Irwin asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what her assessment is of the recent cases of botulism in cattle in the Armagh area; and what plans she has to increase awareness of the disease in terms of its causes and effects. (AQO 3878/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Botulism is not a notifiable disease; however, during April and May, farmers from County Armagh reported four suspected cases of botulism to private veterinary practitioners.
In 2006, there were 73 suspected cases, and, in 2007, 77 suspected cases were reported. That demonstrates a decline from the peak number of suspected cases — 138 — that were reported in 2003. To date this year, 27 cases have been reported, which suggests that, pro rata, there is no evidence of a rise in the number of suspected cases. Putting that in context, in 2003, the number of suspected cases in the North peaked at 138; in 2006, that number fell to 73; and that level was maintained in 2007.
Advisory leaflets on botulism are available from DARD for all farmers. In addition, posters are on display at local DARD veterinary offices, agricultural offices, auction marts and Ulster Farmers’ Union offices, and they alert farmers to the dangers of botulism and advise them about appropriate control measures. Furthermore, advice is available from the DARD website. Consequently, awareness among farmers of the disease, the risk factors involved and the benefit of vaccination as a control tool should now be widespread.
An effective vaccine against botulism in cattle can be obtained through private veterinary practitioners, and that vaccine has been successful in helping to control botulism in cattle here.
Mr Irwin: The farmers in Armagh who lost valuable animals and identified the possible source of the problem to veterinary officials are unhappy — to say the least — that the Department took no action to deal with the problem. Does the Minister’s Department have any powers to take action against the people who were responsible for handling chicken manure in a manner that was unsafe for livestock?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: As I said, botulism is not a notifiable disease. However, private veterinary surgeons may submit carcasses to the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) for investigation. DARD cannot comment on cases in which the evidence is anecdotal. However, if anyone has firm evidence of fraud, we would be very interested to hear about it and to act accordingly.
Mr McCallister: Considering the risk to human health from some forms of botulism, will the Minister assure the House that no risk to human health currently exists?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Risk assessments that were conducted on behalf of the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food did not identify a significant risk to the public from food that is associated to botulism in cattle. That is mainly because, in the vast majority of cases, the toxins that were isolated from cattle do not affect people. Nevertheless, the advice to affected farms is that milk and meat from animals that show signs of the disease should be withheld from sale for human consumption.
Mrs D Kelly: Does the Minister support the use of incinerators to destroy chicken waste?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: That question is not in any way connected to the main question, so I choose not to answer it.
Brucellosis: Testing Results
3. Mr Burns asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what action she is taking to improve the time taken between the testing for brucellosis and issuing test results. (AQO 3824/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I am aware from feedback from the recent farmers’ meetings held as part of the brucellosis initiative and from talking to farmers that they have experienced delays in receiving brucellosis test results. The delays occurred because, as a result of improved surveillance, we have increased the volume of brucellosis testing by 15% from the figure for the same period last year. That increased volume has had an impact on turnaround times.
During the first quarter of 2008, the average time that it took to make a result available after having taken a sample rose to 10·7 days from 8·25 days for the same period in 2007. Moreover, there was additional pressure on staff resources and availability as, over that period, AFBI was also processing tests for bluetongue. AFBI has now redeployed staff, and I am pleased to say that there is no longer a backlog of tests for brucellosis.
Mr Burns: Does the Minister agree that the time currently taken by her Department to release results is unacceptable? Will she consider applying a 30-day retention period from the day that the test results are issued?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: In the first quarter of 2007, the average time from sampling to delivery at the laboratory was 4·5 days. In the same period in 2008, that figure increased slightly to five days. Again, that was due to the increased volume of testing this year, combined with peak demand by farmers for veterinary service staff to carry out sampling during the housing period. That meant that those who took the samples had less time to return to their offices to process the test results. Resource constraints also adversely affect delivery times.
The Veterinary Service is continuing to monitor performance in those areas to minimise the impact on the programme and the delays experienced by farmers. I assure the Member that I take this issue very seriously and that I wish to give farmers the maximum amount of time following receipt of their test results before they move or sell cattle. I am very aware of that issue, which has been raised in the successful meetings that we held on the brucellosis initiative earlier this year.
Mr Bresland: Many farmers are concerned about the length of time that it takes DARD officials to remove animals that have tested positive for brucellosis. What assurance can the Minister give that her Department will speed up the removal of the infected cattle?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I am very conscious of that matter. A leaflet was issued last week to outline what a farmer should do if there is a suspected case of brucellosis. We want those carcasses to be picked up as soon as possible. In the interim, farmers could double-bag them in ordinary bin bags — they should be secure until officials come to pick them up. I agree that there is a risk associated with carcasses or foetuses being on farms, and I want that situation to be improved.
Mr Doherty: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What is the current incidence of brucellosis in the North?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The herd incidence where brucellosis is confirmed by bacteriological culture has remained level since October 2006 at 0·26%. More sensitive testing is identifying more potentially infected animals, hence the rise in the overall annual herd incidence from 0·6% in 2006 to the current level of 1·01%.
4. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development how her Department will use the development of energy generation from biomass energy to create jobs. (AQO 3875/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The development of biomass technology has the potential to create jobs, but that technology is in its early stages. We are encouraging its growth and promoting the opportunities for renewable energy in the agrifood and forestry sectors and wider rural community through technology transfer and demonstration programmes at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) and AFBI, and via measures in the rural development programme. In particular, employment creation is central to measure 3.2 of that programme: ‘Business creation and development’.
During a recent visit to a major timber processor in the west, I saw at first hand a highly successful example of the innovative use of wood fibre for the generation of electricity and heat, and the production of wood fuel pellets for domestic and industrial use. I was particularly pleased that my Department, though the Forest Service, was involved with a commercial customer and other Government agencies in creating the circumstances that allowed investment in that renewable-energy technology.
That is underpinning the viability of the business and associated jobs, which are particularly significant in that rural area, as well as a higher-value market for timber from the Department’s forests.
My Department is also working with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) through the bioenergy interdepartmental working group in order to assess the potential market opportunities for energy from biomass and to address cost-cutting issues such as job creation relevant to the agricultural sector.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her positive response. A recent report from Action Renewables for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, to which I believe the Minister referred, highlighted the potential for job creation arising from the use of renewable energy sources. Does the Minister agree that greater co-operation is needed between her Department and DETI in order to maximise the economic and environmental benefits of energy from biomass?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Good levels of co-operation already exist, and I am not opposed to increasing that co-operation in order to benefit the rural community.
Mr T Clarke: Does the Minister accept, after the recent Assembly debate about the Rose Energy plant that is proposed for Glenavy, and the failure of her Department to come up with something suitable to help the farming industry, especially the poultry industry, that if that proposed application does not proceed, then thousands of jobs could be lost?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The question is about the development of energy generation from biomass energy in order to create jobs. The Member’s question is about incineration, which is not relevant to the question, and is, therefore, not appropriate.
Mr Cree: Will the Minister detail what assistance her Department is giving to landowners who want to use their land to grow willow trees, rape, maize and other sustainable biofuels?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: My Department is involved in a number of issues, especially the creation of short-rotation coppice willow, which fits that category. I do not have the detail to hand, but I will write to the Member with details of what the Department is doing. The Department is working closely with CAFRE and AFBI in order to develop the technology and products that would fit into that source of renewable energy.
Recreational Use of Forests
5. Mr McLaughlin asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development how she intends to increase the recreational use of forests; and to outline the rationale for the charging scheme for some activities. (AQO 3915/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Our forests offer great potential for the development of recreation and public access opportunities for local people and visitors. ‘Northern Ireland Forestry — A Strategy for Sustainability and Growth’, which was published in March 2006, provides the policy framework for Forest Service to make forests more widely available and to work with partners in order to achieve that.
In line with the strategy, Forest Service is developing proposals to identify partnership opportunities with private- and public-sector organisations in order to improve the quality and range of recreation provision in forests. That is expected to result in improved caravanning and camping facilities, and the creation of recreation opportunities such as tree-top adventure activities, making forests more attractive as recreational venues for new and existing visitors, and contributing to the tourism agenda in the North.
I want to see the social use of forests continue and develop. In that context, the Department will be publishing a social use and recreation strategy later this year, which will set out a framework for social use and recreation in the Department’s forests.
The rationale for charging for services falls into several distinct categories. For recreation provision similar to that which is available from the private sector, the Department’s aim is to set fees that achieve full cost recovery. For forestry recreation provision of a non-commercial nature, such as walking trails, charges are made at sites where it is cost-effective to do so. In cases where Forest Service facilitates specific events that are not directly associated with forestry provision, the aim will be to recover costs where the activities are not commercial. For those activities that generate a commercial return, the aim is to secure a share of that return that reflects the contribution made to the business by the forest asset.
Mr McLaughlin: I thank the Minister for that answer. She dwelt on the issue of social and recreational use. Will the Minister elaborate on whether she sees potential as regards the tourism agenda for the North?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I certainly do see such a potential, and I raised that issue at the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting that I attended with Minister Dodds last week. Our forests offer great potential to support the tourism agenda, and that is another area of opportunity that I want to explore. It is especially relevant to those forests that are included in the signature project areas, which have been identified by the Tourist Board. Forest Service officials have been involved in discussions about the possible contribution that forests can make to tourism; how that can best be delivered, and occasions in which forming partnerships with other interested providers can better realise the opportunities. I will ensure that such work continues.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her optimistic assessment of the possibilities. Was she talking merely about the possibilities in the forests that have full-time staff employed by her Department, and that we all identify as having tourism opportunities, or could more be done to add to the informal recreational opportunities in a range of forests across the whole of Northern Ireland?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Some forests are outside my Department’s control, so I will not speak about them. However, any forests that come under my Department’s remit will be open for discussion. Some high-profile forests would be a natural home for recreational activities, but I want to examine the opportunities for other forests in other parts of the North so that we can also maximise the tourism potential for those areas.
Mr I McCrea: I am not sure whether the Minister is aware of the ever-increasing interest in mountain biking in Northern Ireland. Has the Minister had any discussions with the mountain-biking fraternity about whether our forests can be made suitable for that activity, because that would have potential tourism benefits? Has she had any discussions with her counterpart in Scotland?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I have not had any such discussions with my counterpart in Scotland. However, I have had several discussions about the recreational opportunities for forests with the Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN), which has a remit for promoting mountain biking, and I would like to develop further the potential for that activity.
We may need to seek partners, and we have spoken to district councils and others to find ways of maximising the opportunities without necessarily incurring all the cost under the DARD budget. Therefore, I am happy to engage in those types of partnerships and to talk to relevant parties about the issue.
Mr Speaker: Question 6 has been withdrawn.
Farming Industry: Attracting Young People
7. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what strategies are in place to attract young people as agricultural workers and new entrants to the farming industry. (AQO 3844/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Young people are the future of the agriculture industry, and I fully appreciate the importance of attracting young people who have the necessary skills and competences to meet the needs of agricultural businesses. My Department is doing its utmost to encourage new entrants to the industry and to supply those young people with all the skills that they need to move forward. The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise offers 21 full- and part-time courses in agriculture and related land-based services, ranging from NVQ level 2 to honours degree level, to equip young people with the vital knowledge and skills for a successful career in farming.
College staff work closely with post-primary schools to promote careers in the industry and the CAFRE programmes. Each year, schools receive a college prospectus, associated promotional material, school visits and briefings for careers teachers. College staff attend careers conventions and major industry events and host open days for prospective students, parents and careers advisers. Promotional articles and advertisements are published regularly in the farming press.
I also commend the work of CAFRE, Lantra — the industry’s sector skills council — and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, in preparing a land-based occupational studies option for the 14- to 16-year-old age group in schools under the new entitlement framework and raising the profile of agriculture, food and rural environment among young people.
As well as further and higher education programmes, CAFRE will deliver agricultural training under the Department for Employment and Learning’s (DEL) new Training for Success initiative. I wish to ensure that our highly innovative and successful multi-skilling programme, which helps young people to combine off-farm employment with part-time farming, can continue under the new framework. College staff are working with DEL and the regional colleges to secure that outcome.
Furthermore, my Department offers financial assistance to new entrants to the farming industry. The new entrants’ scheme is still open to young farmers under 40 who possess adequate competence and who are setting up as head of a holding for the first time. The scheme provides an interest-rate subsidy on loans for eligible projects that add value and make a positive impact on the farming industry and the wider rural economy.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for the brevity of her answer. Despite what the Minister said, does she not agree that the new entrants’ scheme has not experienced the expected uptake? Will she ensure that greater flexibility will be built into future schemes?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: We have consulted widely on the new entrants’ scheme, and I am particularly interested to hear the Young Farmers’ Clubs’ opinion on the scheme and possible improvements. We have extended the deadline for the new entrants’ scheme to encourage as many young people as possible to take up that money. Furthermore, there will be another publicity drive this week. We want to attract more new entrants, and I recognise that, last year, people were busy with the farm nutrient management scheme, which might have discouraged uptake in the interim period. However, by and large, the Department will do its utmost to attract new entrants into the industry and to ensure its long-term viability.
Dr W McCrea: Given the current financial realities in the farming industry, will the Minister acknowledge the need to adopt a wider twin-track approach to that issue? The scheme is necessary to permit senior members of farming families to retire and to attract vital new blood to the industry. Has such a detailed strategy been devised and presented to the industry?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I have discussed that issue with officials; in fact, in my first day in the job, that issue arose during discussions with senior members of the Department. After in-depth examination, farming organisations have told us clearly that, if the budget is limited, they would prefer an investment in young people rather than helping farmers to retire. It was felt that the single farm payment would help to cushion retiring farmers. The Member is, perhaps, thinking of the scheme in the Twenty-six Counties, whereby much more money was available, which enabled funding for both groups. Unfortunately, we do not have access to that level of funding.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answer. Has she assessed the payment rates outlined in the minimum wage regulations for agricultural workers?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: That is a timely question because, in October 2007, the Assembly debated the Agricultural Wages Board and the protection of the minimum wage structure for agricultural workers. We accept that farmers and farm workers must receive a level of pay that encourages them to join the industry, or it will be difficult to attract and retain workers in the sector. Therefore, it is a timely issue, and I will keep my eye on the ball in that regard.
Local Action Groups
8. Mr Molloy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for an update on having local action groups as part of the rural development programme 2007-2013. (AQO 3917/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Seven council clusters are in place, which have been conducting the animation of the rural areas and have either held — or are holding — a competitive call for the formation of a local action group. To date, four local action groups have been formed: Ards — covering Ards, Down, North Down and Banbridge council areas; Antrim — covering Antrim, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey council areas; Cookstown — covering Cookstown, Fermanagh, Magherafelt and Dungannon and South Tyrone council areas; Omagh — covering Omagh, Strabane, Limavady and Derry council areas.
Their documentation has been passed to my Department for ratification, ensuring that equality is addressed and that they represent all groups, as defined by section 75.
Mr Molloy: I thank the Minister for her answer. What progress has been made under existing arrangements?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: To date, all seven clusters have agreed, through full council, to work together to deliver the programme. As I said, four of the clusters have completed the animation process and have, through a competitive process, formed local action groups. One cluster is in the final stages of selecting a local action group, and two clusters are completing their animation phase and opening a call for a local action group. Consultants have been appointed in all areas to start work on the rural development strategies, and my Department issued an invitation to all clusters to submit strategies by 31 July 2008.
Mr P J Bradley: Will the Minister explain why all councils were not notified of the miscalculations that were made in relation to the first £50 million of the rural development fund? I know that the Minister notified all lead councils; however, would it not have been prudent to notify all councils of those serious mistakes?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: As I said, the figures were based on an erroneous application by officials of the methodology for calculating deprivation and were, therefore, incorrect. That mistake was brought to my attention by members of my party. I have instructed my officials to recalculate the figures, and I have given information about that today. My Department is working with the lead council concerned and is giving it space to do so, because there is no point in duplicating that work. The figures were announced today, and I expect the lead council to talk to the other councils in its cluster.
Subregional Creative Clusters
1. Mr O’Loan asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what support is available to subregional creative clusters in the community and voluntary sector. (AQO 3892/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): In conjunction with other Departments and Invest Northern Ireland, my Department is developing a strategy to support and develop the creative-industries sector. I have secured £5 million over the next three years to deliver a creative-industries seed fund, which will provide support for creative businesses and sectoral initiatives. The detailed criteria for the fund are being determined, and I expect that the fund will be open to applications by autumn 2008.
Creative practitioners and businesses often develop in proximity to each other, and clustering fosters connections that are of mutual benefit. Examples of creative clusters involving the community and voluntary sectors can be found in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast and the Nerve Centre in Londonderry. There are several sources of support for those initiatives, including the Arts Council, Northern Ireland Screen and local councils. Several councils have made significant investments in their arts infrastructures, which provide hubs for creative activities across Northern Ireland.
Mr O’Loan: Does the Minister agree that there is robust international evidence that strong economic performance occurs in regions with a thriving arts sector and that the arts are a driver of strong economic performance, rather than merely a result of it? Given that our community-based arts organisations are currently delivering arts on a shoestring, will he do everything that he can to increase support for the community-based arts sector?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I am not sure where the Member has been, but there was a significant debate on the arts during the Budget deliberations. Prior to that debate, people involved in the arts had been complaining strongly that their budgets were not good enough and that provision for the arts in the draft Budget was not good enough. My Department made substantial gains during the final Budget process. I have already told the House that £5 million will go into a creative industries seed fund over the next five years. I am glad that the Member is now aware of what happened some months ago.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. Derry styles itself, like Galway, as a place where creative culture flourishes. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the work that is going on in the Magee campus of the university there and in the Nerve Centre. What support or interest is his Department demonstrating in supporting creative clusters, especially in the Foyle and wider north-west areas?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Again, I am fascinated that someone from the Foyle constituency would not know or understand what has been going on in the creative industries there. The Nerve Centre is supported by my Department. The north-west challenge fund has distributed £4 million in that constituency. Therefore, it is clear that a great deal has been going on in the arts in that city, and I am glad to be able to bring the Member up to speed on that this afternoon.
Mr McNarry: Time beat me, Mr Speaker, in welcoming the new First Minister personally. I do not know what the future holds for Minister Poots. However, I take this opportunity to thank him for his courtesy to me, which I hope continues.
Will the Minister tell the House what level of official departmental support he has had in developing the creative clusters, particularly in the context of business opportunities?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I thank the Member for his remarks. Mr Poots’s future will be very good, because it is in the Lord’s hands, and I am very happy to be in His hands.
My Department aspires to develop creative clusters. In Northern Ireland, 34,600 people are engaged in creative activities, which results in employment of around 4·7% of the population. Although it has often been viewed as a Cinderella sector providing few employment opportunities, it is one of the more significant employment sectors in Northern Ireland. My Department will work with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to ensure that people who have the skills to bring schemes forward can work with those who have the business acumen to develop them further. That is already happening in such places as The Nerve Centre and Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.
Increasing Participation in Sports
2. Mr McFarland asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how he intends to increase participation in sports by people in groups with current low rates of participation. (AQO 3837/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The draft ‘The Northern Ireland Strategy for Sport & Physical Recreation 2007-2017’, which I published for consultation last October, proposes several targets and actions to increase participation in sports by people in groups with current low rates of participation. The Budget 2008-2011 provides a total of £145 million for sport, and it is my intention, in conjunction with Sport Northern Ireland, to deploy part of that resource to help increase participation in sport among people in groups with low participation rates, as identified in the draft strategy for sport and physical recreation.
Mr McFarland: The draft strategy, which was published last October, stated that women, people on low incomes and people with disabilities were seriously under-represented in sport. Will the Minister tell the House exactly what he has done in the last nine months to improve the levels of participation of people in those categories?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: We are developing a strategy for sport, and we have set increased participation targets of 6% for women, people with physical and learning disabilities and people from deprived backgrounds to engage in sport and physical recreation. Achieving those targets will involve identifying greater numbers of coaches and developing more community-based places for sport delivery.
We lost significant lottery funding, but we managed to replace it. Thirteen programmes that applied for the lottery funding were told that they could not proceed. Not only will those programmes now go ahead, but we will be able to progress many others. Much work has been done, and I thank the Member for his interest in the issue.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Has the Minister had any discussions with his counterpart in the Scottish Executive, which made the decision to invest money from its health budget in sport, because of its health benefits?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Yes. I travelled to Scotland and had discussions with the Scottish Minister. He subsequently visited Northern Ireland and he was very impressed by our multi-use games areas, where schools and councils have joined together to provide opportunities for sport. There can be absolutely no doubt that sport is one key area through which we can challenge poor health resulting from obesity and weight problems and can help to prevent conditions such as diabetes and colon cancer. We hope to encourage people to get people involved in physical recreation.
Special Olympics Ireland
3. Mrs O’Neill asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how his Department will assist Special Olympics Ireland to continue the growth of the Special Olympics programme. (AQO 3886/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: My Department and the whole Northern Ireland Government have been supportive of Special Olympics Ireland. In 2003, Special Olympics Ireland received £1,184,000 towards the cost of hosting the world games. In 2006, my Department contributed £500,000 towards the cost of hosting the games here in Belfast and surrounding areas.
Special Olympics Ireland has prepared an operational plan for 2008-2011 for Special Olympics Ulster, which it will present to several Ministers soon. After that presentation, it would be appropriate for the Ministers involved to discuss and agree the way forward.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister place the item on the agenda of his next North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting with the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Mr Martin Cullen TD? Has the NSMC ever received a presentation from Special Olympics Ireland about the importance of its work?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: No.
Lord Browne: The Minister will be aware of an increase of 3,000 in the number of athletes participating in Special Olympics activities since 2003. Indeed, athlete numbers have doubled since 2000. How many of those 3,000 new athletes are from Northern Ireland? What is the percentage increase in participation in Northern Ireland since 2000?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: A considerable number of people from Northern Ireland — and, particularly, from Special Olympics Ulster — are participating in those activities. I was delighted to host an evening, earlier this year, for young people who participated in the Special Olympics in Shanghai, many of whom returned home with large numbers of medals. Those Special Olympics athletes are showing the way forward. I will provide Lord Browne with the figures for Northern Ireland participants in writing.
Mr Cree: How has the Special Olympics movement developed in Northern Ireland since Belfast hosted the games two years ago?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Special Olympics groups have developed well. Our young athletes’ considerable success in last year’s games is a demonstration of that. An operational plan was due to be presented to the junior Ministers and Ministers McGimpsey, Ruane, Ritchie and myself on 5 June. Unfortunately, that meeting was postponed because of scheduling difficulties, but it will take place in the near future.
Community Festival Funding
4. Mr Moutray asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what take-up there has been by local councils of funding for community festivals. (AQO 3895/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: To date, 22 councils have responded to accept the offer of community festivals funding. Three councils — Craigavon, Derry City and Ballymoney — have indicated that they intend to accept the offer. Belfast City Council has yet to formally respond to the offer.
Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his answer, and I welcome the fact that some councils have either already taken up the provision or are about to do so. Groups in the unionist community, particularly the Loyal Orders, have routinely lost out in the allocation of funding. Will the Minister’s initiative reverse the scandalous inequality in funding allocation?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I hope that it will. Last year, organisations that could be identified as having a unionist background received less than 10% of a fund of over £400,000. Councils should do a considerably better job in ensuring the more equitable delivery of funding.
I am disappointed that Belfast City Council has not yet formally responded to the offer of funding. Indeed, it is shocking that some of those people holding up the process are Ulster Unionist councillors. On the one hand, organisers of Orangefest in Belfast are writing to me, asking me to move things forward. On the other hand, people such as Councillor Bob Stoker are holding the entire process back.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that funding for festivals in Belfast has been greatly reduced? Will he detail what funding has been given to Féile an Phobail this year?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Councils are supposed to match fund what is offered by the Department. If Belfast City Council match fund what the Department has offered, it would have the same amount of money to distribute to the festival organisers as it did last year. The lady from Sandy Row who complained bitterly about not receiving funding was right. The funding necessary for that festival could be in place if Belfast City Council moves forward.
Councils such as Ballymena, Newtownabbey, Ards and Strabane, which previously received nothing, will receive funding under the scheme.
Councils across the Province are reporting back to me that that the funding offer has proven successful, and that they have had 20 or 25 applications for festival funding, which they can approve. Councils are saying that that is a good-news story for their constituencies and for Northern Ireland — I encourage Belfast City Council to join in that good-news story.
Mr P J Bradley: The Ulster Fleadh Cheoil will be held in Castlewellan this year between 21 July and 27 July. Does the Minister agree that ministerial attendance at that major cultural event is very important?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I did not hear the name of the event about which Mr Bradley asked.
Mr Speaker: Will the Member clarify his supplementary question?
Mr P J Bradley: I asked about the Ulster Fleadh Cheoil.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: My ratio of attendance at events to requests that I have received is very high. Whenever that request comes in, it will be considered.
Active Places NI Website
5. Mr Armstrong asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how his Department is promoting the Active Places NI (www.activeplacesni.net) website. (AQO 3833/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Active Places Northern Ireland website was developed by Sport Northern Ireland (SNI) with the co-operation of Northern Ireland’s district councils, sports’ governing bodies, the education sector and other stakeholders. The website is being promoted through the SNI website, which is due to be relaunched in July. Active Places NI is also promoted on all SNI-designed publications, such as SportsZone and Sportsline, and the web address is prevalent on SNI business cards.
Mr Armstrong: Active Places promotes 5,500 sporting opportunities across Northern Ireland. Will the Minister indicate whether any geographical areas are significantly under-represented in that spread of opportunities?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: One would assume that if 5,500 places are promoted across Northern Ireland, most of Northern Ireland is covered.
Mr Shannon: I have a very quick question: are there any plans to review or indeed improve the Active Places NI website in any way?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The website is not particularly old. Given the nature of the rate of IT development, however, such matters are under regular review.
Mr Brolly: Is financial assistance provided to individuals who, in order to train and prepare in their pursuit of excellence, must travel from rural areas to greater Belfast or Lisburn to access sporting facilities?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: That is a very interesting question, which bears absolutely no relevance to websites.
Upgrading Football Stadia
6. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what action he intends to take to upgrade football stadia before the 2012 Olympics. (AQO 3842/08)
8. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what the total cost is to the public purse of applications or proposals from Irish League football clubs to renovate or refurbish their stadia. (AQO 3820/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: With your permission Mr Speaker, I shall take questions 6 and 8 together. Responsibility for upgrading football stadia before the 2012 Olympics rests with those venues’ owners. However, Sport Northern Ireland, which is responsible for the development of sport — including the distribution of funding — has been running a number of Exchequer and lottery programmes to which the owners of football stadia are eligible to apply. Those include the lottery’s Building Sport programme and two Exchequer programmes — the stadia-safety programme and the soccer strategy.
The total anticipated cost to the public purse for applications or proposals that have been received to date from Irish League football clubs to renovate or refurbish their stadia under SNI’s stadia-safety programme is £5·9 million. The Irish Football Association (IFA) is planning to launch a capital programme to assist Irish League clubs to meet new UEFA licensing requirements, and new IFA Premier League and Premier Intermediate League facility requirements. The SNI has agreed to provide up to £3·56 million to assist the IFA in implementing that programme.
Furthermore, I have been reviewing sports facilities’ spend patterns more generally in light of the sports-places targets proposed in the Northern Ireland strategy for sport and physical recreation, which I published for consultation last October.
As a result of that, I plan to initiate a sports-places modernisation programme, using the available capital budget for sport that was announced in the recent Budget. That programme will be open to all sports, including football, and will allow capital moneys to be used more flexibly in facilitating the delivery of the places target that is emerging from the Northern Ireland sport strategy.
Mr Kennedy: I welcome the Minister’s response.
Can the Minister outline what discussions, if any, he has had with the Irish Football Association or any other body regarding the provision of a new or upgraded Northern Ireland national soccer stadium at a location other than the Maze?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I have had a number of discussions with the IFA, which has put its cards on the table: it wishes to proceed with the project at the Maze. It has not indicated that it wishes to proceed with any other project.
I have had separate discussions with Linfield Football Club about the potential to upgrade Windsor Park. That could only happen if rugby was involved in some way to generate the additional income that would be required for the investment. Both football and rugby need more income, and the way in which they can generate that is to have more people attend their matches. The longer that this debate goes on, and the longer the procrastination goes on, the longer those two particular sports will suffer. We politicians must bear some of the responsibility for that.
Mr Campbell: Can the Minister say whether the announcement that he is making about the additional moneys that sports, including football, can access might allow Coleraine Football Club, at the Showgrounds, for example, or Institute Football Club, at the Riverside in Londonderry, to avail themselves of funds to develop their respective grounds?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The modernisation fund that has been referred to will allow a variety of sports to apply for funding for stadiums. Stadiums in Northern Ireland are in a fairly decrepit state, and I have had a number of meetings with, for example, Coleraine Borough Council in relation to the Coleraine Showgrounds. The council is looking at potential opportunities, including the possibility of relocation. It is very important that there be a quality facility there, given that it is the home of the Milk Cup — many teams participate in that particular competition, and it is a high-profile event for Northern Ireland. The answer is that yes, sports organisations in general can apply to this fund, and Coleraine and Drumahoe are not excluded from applying.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the delay in reaching a decision about the multi-sports stadium at the Long Kesh site effectively mean that we have missed the boat on hosting important football matches in association with the 2012 Olympics? Does the Minister plead guilty to the charge of failing to be decisive when decisiveness and leadership were called for within his Department? Furthermore, does he fancy Tyrone’s chances against Down next Saturday?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: It was not a decision to be made exclusively by my Department. It is a cross-cutting issue, and I do not want to be like other Ministers who thought that they would be decisive, but only ended up being divisive and not being able to deliver. We could still get the 2012 Olympics, should we move ahead in the not-too-distant future.
Mr A Maginness: In fairness to the Minister, I think that he was decisive in his own mind — other people prevented him from implementing the strategy in relation to the Maze stadium.
In the light of the serious delay in decision-making, is there a real chance of facilities being ready so that we can benefit in some way from the London Olympic Games?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: There would be a one-year planning process and a two-year building process, so it is really down to the decision-making process. It takes three years, and the closer you get to that, the less of a chance there is of it happening. It is as simple as that.
Co-operation Between Sport NI and the Irish Sports Council
7. Mr W Clarke asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the extent and character of co-operation between Sport NI and the Irish Sports Council. (AQO 3882/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Sport NI and the Irish Sports Council co-operate on an ongoing basis to develop all-island sport and on issues of common concern.
That co-operation takes various forms, including regular meetings of an all-Ireland planning committee, made up of representatives of both organisations; joint meetings with the 37 all-Ireland sports governing bodies to optimise development in those sports; a jointly organised biannual all-Ireland sports conference; and the formulation of joint policy such as a code of ethics and good practice for children’s sport.
Mr W Clarke: I thank the Minister for his succinct response. Has he held meetings with his counterpart in the South in relation to making a bid to host a major UEFA European football championship? Furthermore, does the Minister agree that such a bid could be made by a Celtic alliance that could include the North of Ireland, the South of Ireland, Wales and Scotland?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Previously, a bid was made for the 2011 UEFA Under-21 European Championship. That bid has now been withdrawn. The IFA worked with the FAI on that bid, but the lack of a suitable stadium in Northern Ireland prevented that from proceeding.
Mr Craig: Will the Minister tell us why Northern Ireland schools are participating in every event of the UK School Games with the sole exception of swimming? Is it true that the participation of swimming clubs in Northern Ireland has been blocked because they are affiliated to an all-Ireland institution?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I thank the Member for his question. The UK School Games is hugely beneficial, and many young people from Northern Ireland participate in them. I confirm that many young people participate in Northern Ireland-only teams, but that swimmers are prevented from participating. My understanding is that the Irish Schools’ Swimming Association, which organised the swimming teams, has pulled out of the games, and Northern Ireland schools are not allowed to enter children in the games. That is hugely unfortunate and it is a matter that must be resolved. The UK School Games should not discriminate against one region of the United Kingdom by preventing children from this part of the UK from participating in that great event.
Foras na Gaeilge
9. Mr A Maskey asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure if Foras na Gaeilge will fund capital development projects in the future. (AQO 3884/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: There is no provision for Foras na Gaeilge to operate a capital-funding programme in Northern Ireland. No provision has been made in the comprehensive spending review for it to fund capital-development projects for the next three years.
Mr A Maskey: A Cheann Comhairle, I thank the Minister for his response. In some of his earlier responses, the Minister has been rather abrupt and his responses have been totally inappropriate. I am not sure whether to thank the Minister or to wish him slán go fóill, because I know that he is having a difficult day.
My supplementary question is to ask the Minister whether there is any prospect of capital-grant support for organisations such as An Droichead on the Ormeau Road in south Belfast. An Droichead is currently the only project of that nature in that part of the city. That project is seeking to expand and develop in order to introduce training and conference facilities, which may be used by the wider community and bring additional tourism into an area of disadvantage.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Neither Foras na Gaeilge nor the Ulster-Scots Agency, both agencies of the North/South Language Body, fund capital-development projects. No provision is made for that in the comprehensive spending review, nor is there a mechanism to deliver it.
Mr Storey: What assessment has the Minister made of those proposals, and how likely are they to be implemented? What criteria will be used to determine the viability of such projects?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Prior to devolution, a bid was made through the integrated development fund for a Gaeltacht quarter in west Belfast. My Department is currently considering that matter. We have asked for an economic appraisal of the proposal. To be implemented, it will have to meet the recognised standards of economic appraisal. There is no question that such a project would be implemented if it does not meet green-book standards. We have applied that stop check.
10. Mr Durkan asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline progress in the formulation of the events strategy. (AQO 3859/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Following the discovery of serious financial and corporate governance weaknesses at the Northern Ireland Events Company, responsibility for its functions has passed directly to my Department and has been administered by the DCAL events unit since April 2008. Therefore, we are still open for business, but under new management.
Officials from DCAL, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) and DETI are working on a strategy to transfer the events function to NITB which will develop and deliver a 10-year events strategy. That strategy is subject to the successful completion of a due diligence exercise on the events function and to agreement between the Ministers from DETI and DCAL.
In the interim, calls for applications to the events growth fund and the major events fund were advertised on 28 March 2008, with a closing date of 2 May 2008. A total of 26 applications were received to both funds and these are being processed.
Mr McElduff: On a point of order, Mr Speaker, a Cheann Comhairle. Further to Alex Maskey’s comments about the Minister’s being very abrupt in the last session, his answers to supplementary questions posed by Members on this side of the House failed to meet even the basic standard of courtesy and detail. I ask the Speaker to examine the Hansard report and rule appropriately on whether the Minister exhibited bad manners during the past half hour.
Mr Speaker: As I have said to all sides of the House, on many occasions, it is not up to the Speaker to decide how a Minister answers a question or a supplementary question. The Minister gave long answers to some Members.
Mr McElduff: Thanks, Edwin. Keep in touch.
Supply Resolution for 2008-09 Main Estimates and
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £7,184,270,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 and that resources, not exceeding £8,474,916,000 be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 as summarized for each Department or other public body in Columns 3(b) and 3(a) of Table 1.3 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Estimates 2008-2009 that was laid before the Assembly on 30 May 2008. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster).]
The following motion stood in the Order Paper:
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £7,224,593.19 be granted out of the Consolidated Fund for or towards defraying the charges for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety – Health and Personal Social Services Superannuation, for the year ending 31 March 2007 as summarized in Part II of the Statement of Excess document that was laid before the Assembly on 30 May 2008. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster).]
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Leas — gabh mo leithscéal — a Cheann Comhairle.
I welcome the opportunity to comment on some issues relating to education and to the children and young people’s fund.
The extended schools programme, mentioned by other Members today, was directed to the areas of greatest need. It was, to all intents and purposes, a form of early intervention, aimed at counteracting the effects of social disadvantage. Similar aims lie behind the community-and voluntary-run school-age childcare schemes, many of which are running out of funds. In fact, some may have done so by the end of this month. They have provided an excellent service and have worked in areas of great social disadvantage.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
The philosophy of early intervention that lay behind extended schools was correct. However, it can be effective only if it is applied and resourced consistently. On-off, or reduced, resourcing amounts to nothing more than short-termism, which can have only limited, short-term benefits.
Although the aims were laudable, they were not supported by strong, underpinning policy. In some cases, schools received funding and, after initiating their own schemes, received the guidelines three to six months later. Furthermore, links between the schools and the local community were, in many cases, not explored, resulting in the displacement of local services provided by the voluntary and community sectors.
The reduction in the extended schools budget reduces drastically the services that schools can offer. That, coupled with the effect of displacement of community and voluntary school-age childcare services, leaves a huge gap in provision that will be difficult to fill without an increase in resources.
Guaranteed, core funding is needed in the longer term. That will allow the advantages of intervention to continue into the future and will ensure that the maximum benefit is received.
If the policy arguments of this issue are strong, the politics of it are shocking. At the time of the Budget, the SDLP raised concerns about the abolition of the Executive children’s fund — a cross-cutting fund to deliver on programmes, such as childcare, with obvious connections to education, employment, the economy and social care.
Executive colleagues told us that children’s programmes would not suffer; they told us that we were playing politics. However, the extended schools programme and the school-age childcare programmes are in danger of going to the wall. The two main parties — the DUP and Sinn Féin — are playing the politics of mutual self-interest at the expense of the economy, children and working parents.
It is worth recalling their commitments when the re-establishment of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people was being debated. Junior Minister Paisley claimed:
“We are confident that the available funding should mean that no child or youth programme will be reduced or cut.” — [Official Report, Vol 27, No 3, p 173, col 1].
Minister Kelly agreed with his colleague and said that:
“the Budget was good for children”. [Official Report, Vol 27, No 3, p 175, col 1].
That is not the current situation.
At least the Minster of Education is consistent. She failed to seek funding for the reform of education in the Budget, and she also failed to seek funding for school-age childcare. Now we are to hold our breaths to see what in-year monitoring can do to save her blushes. I support her bid for £5 million in resource funding for extended schools, but I do not hold out much hope for success — a feeling shared by her departmental officials. Last Friday, they informed the Committee for Education that they are far from confident that the bid will succeed.
Although I welcome the uplift of £12 million towards providing more administrative time for teaching principals, that underlines, in many ways, the huge anomalies that exist in education funding in Northern Ireland. Primary school principals — who will meet here on Wednesday — express their exasperation daily at a system that makes it difficult to attain the smaller class sizes that are required to achieve the outcomes that we want to see from primary education.
Principals and primary-school teachers are, rightly, seeking parity with their secondary colleagues in preparation, planning and assessment times; more and better learning resources; more support staff; and more management support. Those are serious issues to which Members must give serious consideration and take action to tackle.
As I said earlier, the reforms envisaged by the Minister of Education have not been costed. The Minister believes that reform can be achieved through tweaking, in some way, the present system. However, if reforms have not been costed, how does the Minister know what resources will or will not be required? We may well find ourselves embarking on a programme of reform without the necessary resources to implement it. Where will we be if that is the case?
The SDLP supports extended schools, but not all schools are taking up the option — even if they are properly funded. It is not a panacea. School-age childcare schemes also provide a vital service. They are targeted at areas of social deprivation, and they aim to help to get parents off benefits and into work. The Executive said that the economy was their priority, and they have a golden opportunity now, at a modest cost, to get people back into the workforce. Even if Ministers ignore the social argument, they should appreciate the financial case — the cost of a childcare place is much lower than the cost of benefits for parents.
There are important questions to be asked. Why has the Minister of Education not made a bid for the social-economy school-age childcare schemes, which will run out of funding at the end of this month? There seems to be an ongoing argument among several Departments — a game of pass the parcel — which is not good enough on this serious issue.
Why do Ministers not appreciate that the cost of a childcare place is lower than that of benefits? Can they not do the sums? Does the Minister accept that a cross-cutting fund for cross-cutting issues of such central importance is one of the best ways to provide services on a stable and coherent basis?
Mr Durkan: We were told by other parties that cross-cutting funds of themselves did not work. We were also assured that the funding for children and young people was being ring-fenced into three Departments — Culture, Arts and Leisure, Health, and Education — only to find that Education could not sustain the very programmes that were funded.
Does the Member agree that cross-cutting funding is the only way to stop what he called the “pass the parcel” exercise, in which people are referred from one Department to another, each of which sympathises and encourages, but then refuses funding?
Mr D Bradley: I totally agree with the Member and thank him for the points that he made.
The Executive are seen to lack strategy and leadership. They talk economy but do not deliver, even when opportunities are there for the taking. In their self-interested collaboration and the phoney war that was played out last week, they let vital issues go to the wall. That is totally unacceptable.
We all promised that devolution would improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland. However, what I have outlined are vital areas that have not been improved. Not only are they not being improved, but they are being “dis-improved”.
We also see certain Ministers reflect their own prejudices in the way in which funding is allocated within some Departments. We have seen an example of that in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, with the underfunding of the Irish language. An examination of the percentage increase given to Ulster Scots —
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr D Bradley: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I allowed an intervention; I am allowed an extra minute.
Mr Deputy Speaker: On a ten-minute speech, no extra time is allowed for an intervention.
Mr D Bradley: I apologise. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Hamilton: More money for the health budget there — I think that there is a bit of a crisis somewhere in the Chamber. [Laughter.]
Maybe you should check the acoustics, Mr Deputy Speaker. There seems to be a problem with the sound.
The debate is a necessary part of the seemingly interminable and ever-ongoing budgetary process in this House. Budgets, Finance Bills, even Supply resolution debates are characterised by calls for more money for this or that. Members have not disappointed. From all sides of the House, they have called for additional sums of money for various projects that are dear to their hearts.
Another common occurrence — and today’s debate has been no different — is to blame the poor Finance Minister, or the Department of Finance generally, for a lack of funding here or a lack of funding there. Minister Foster must be glad that she is only temporarily filling the Finance Minister’s shoes, and will not be subjected to such criticism in the longer term.
An example of such behaviour comes from a perhaps not unexpected, but, nevertheless, unfortunate, quarter — a Minister. During a debate in this House on 20 May on funding for extended schools, Minister Ruane said some things unbecoming of a Minister or any Member of this House. I have a range of quotes, but I will start with this one:
“All Members who spoke talked about the extended schools programme — and it is a good programme. Why has it been cut? It has been cut because the Department of Finance and Personnel has not provided the finances for it to proceed in its current form.” — [Official Report, Vol 30, No 7, p378, col 2].
That is the sort of excuse or response that might be expected from others, but certainly not from a Minister who signed off on the Budget, both in the Executive and in the Assembly.
It is patent nonsense and, in many respects, does not stand up to scrutiny. The Minister has acknowledged that the funding gap for the extended schools programme is around £4 million — 0·2% of the funds available to her out of a budget of almost £1·8 billion.
During the budgetary process, of which today’s debate is an element, the Department of Education received the fourth-highest budget uplift of all Departments over the period 2008-2011, with an additional spending power of over £400 million, which will be available by the end of the Budget period. If, considering the Minister’s comments, those facts were not damning enough, Members should remember that her Department was unable to spend almost £100 million in funds that were available to it last year, making it one of the worst-performing Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive.
All Departments have difficult choices to make, which sometimes involve scaling back some services in order to fund improvements elsewhere. Sadly, instead of Minister Ruane defending her decision, she has opted for the easy choice of blaming the Department of Finance and Personnel. Continuing on the same theme, during the aforementioned debate, the Minister of Education stated:
“As recently as last month, I wrote again to the Finance Minister to describe the negative impact that reduced funding would have on the extended schools programme. I asked him to consider making further resources available, and I will continue to press the issue.” — [Official Report, Vol 30, No 7, p378, col 2].
In that debate, she also said:
“On 7 January 2008, I again wrote to the Finance Minister to make him aware that concerns had been raised during public consultation on the Budget in relation to the removal of children and young people’s funding from departmental baselines, and my inability to fill that gap given the proposed allocation. Did he listen to that public consultation? No, he did not.” — [Official Report, Vol 30, No 7, p380, col 1].
The accusation that the Minister of Finance and Personnel ignored the issue of education is not supported by even the most elementary scrutiny of the facts.
In the time between the draft Budget being announced on 5 October 2007 and the Final Stage of the Budget Bill on 26 February 2008, the allocation to the Department of Education was increased by some £24 million in addition to, I understand, other increases that were made throughout the budgetary process. Of the additional £24 million, £13 million was specifically set aside for children and young people’s projects of the type that we are debating.
As all Members will recall, the Minister of Finance and Personnel also responded positively to arguments that were made during the public consultation on the draft Budget about the allocation for everything from health — specifically, mental health — to the arts and to social housing. Clearly, the Minister of Finance and Personnel responded to calls on the finite resources at his disposal, including the Department of Education. He responded positively to the public. It is not so clear whether the Minister of Education did that for the extended schools programme.
It is disappointing — if not, sometimes, unexpected — when a private Member takes the easy path of attacking the Department of Finance and Personnel for its Budget allocation without considering fundamental questions such as where the extra money will come from — for example, from higher rates or cutbacks in services — but it is all the more so when it comes from a Minister who was a major player in the budgetary process.
Mr Durkan: I note the seriousness with which the Member is considering these points. However, surely questions can be asked not only of the Minister of Education but of the junior Ministers in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister? During the debates on the Budget and the Programme for Government, the junior Ministers gave specific assurances that all the money that was in the children and young people’s funding package was being ring-fenced in three Departments’ budgets — including that of the Department of Education — and assured the House that there would be no cut in the funding for the programmes that were previously supported.
Why have the junior Ministers not ensured that the money that supposedly went to the Department of Education was used to support the extended schools programme? The questions that Mr Hamilton raises do not refer only to what was said by the Minister of Education but to what other Ministers were telling us at the time of the debates on the Programme for Government and the Budget.
Mr Hamilton: I know that the Member has serious concerns about this issue, and he has expressed them previously in the Chamber.
The point that I am making — which has, today, been raised not only by me but by the Member’s colleague, as well as other Members — is that the Minister of Education has pleaded that the Minister of Finance and Personnel gave her no assistance whatsoever or any additional money, but, when the facts are examined, it is clear that she did receive additional money.
Given the Member’s experience, he will know better than most that the Minister of Education must prioritise the extended schools programme and make funds available to it if she considers it to be a good programme, which is exactly what she said in the debate on 20 May 2008.
Additional funds were made available to the Minister, and it was up to her to prioritise that. It is disappointing when a Minister, after signing off on — and voting for — the Budget in the Executive and the House, blames the Minister of Finance and Personnel for a lack of funding. The Minister had ample opportunity to secure more money for those programmes and would not have had to rely on end-year funding.
Although one expects a humble Back-Bencher like myself to call for more money for various projects —
Mr Durkan: Not for much longer.
Mr Hamilton: We would love to see the light before the end of the day.
Although one might expect such behaviour from a Back-Bencher, it is not becoming of a Minister. The Minister is fond of speaking every language under the sun in the House, but it would be good if she spoke some sense.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I have listened to the debate with interest — it has degenerated into a finger-pointing exercise between Members about how Ministers from other parties run their Departments and how much better run those Departments would be if they were controlled by the party of those Members. I am not sure that that assists us in our long-term project to manage our finances in this part of the world.
We deal with a block grant from the British Exchequer, which means that there is a set Budget that we must divide as best as possible. Until the Assembly grasps the nettle and deals with its own economic destiny, the squabble over who should have got more of the pie will continue.
We are not dealing with the economic questions that we face in the short and long term — some parties shy away from taking responsibility for tax-varying and other powers. They believe that continuing in a subservient fashion will solve the problems that many in our society face — it will not. Until we establish an all-Ireland economy and until we establish our own economic independence, we will not be able to solve the problems that we face in our society daily.
From one humble Back-Bencher to another, I want to respond to several of the points made by Members, particularly those about the Department of Education. If we are going to have a debate about the block grant, we must use the facts that are before us. Since the debate on extended schools funding, I am surprised at how often the DUP has denied the claims that were made by the Minister of Education. I did not study Shakespeare, but I think that it was — [Interruption.]
Mr Shannon: He was English.
Mr O’Dowd: There is a rumour that he was, but we will not claim that yet.
There is a Shakespeare play with the famous line: he denieth too much. DUP Members denieth too much. At every opportunity, they tell the House that the Minister of Education did not ask for more money, that the lack of funding was not the fault of the Department of Finance and Personnel and that there was plenty of money in the kitty, and so on.
Mr Weir: The Member is a new member of the Education Committee, and I am keen to improve education where possible. The correct quote is: he doth protest too much. I am always keen to help the opposite side.
Mr O’Dowd: I am always keen to take on more knowledge. However, that does not change the point that I made.
Like every other Department, the Department of Education must make hard decisions and deal with the finances that are before it. The Minister ring-fenced as much money as she could to ensure that the extended schools programme operates in as many schools as possible, but there was not enough money in the Budget to go around.
Mr Beggs: Does the Member accept that Ministers must take difficult decisions, and that, when a decision is taken to spend money in one particular area, it means that there is no money for another area? Furthermore, does the Member accept that agreeing to establish an additional Irish-language school, when there are over 100 vacant places in a school less than a mile away, is a decision that will use scarce additional resources, and, therefore, one that limits choices in other areas of expenditure? Finally, does the Member accept that that was a bad decision, particularly as it went against the advice of officials?
Mr O’Dowd: The Minister of Education has clarified exactly what advice was given to her by officials and by other bodies in the Department of Education. The issue is not about denying one person’s rights in favour of another’s; it is about ensuring that we deliver services to the entire community, including to those parents who want their children to be educated in the Irish-medium sector.
The Members opposite are right: Members should not come into the Chamber and cry for more money. Ministers have to run the Departments and the services at their disposal as efficiently as possible.
Members across the Chamber, who are currently blocking a Bill that would provide for the establishment of an education and skills authority, and who are protecting the five education and library boards, will be interested to know that of the £100 million that Mr Hamilton said the Department of Education handed back, £27 million was handed back by the five education and library boards.
Mr D Bradley: Is the Member aware that £3·8 million of the children and young people’s fund to assist voluntary- and community-sector projects working with children in disadvantaged areas was handed back by the Department of Education to the centre? I quote a letter from the OFMDFM liaison officer to the Education Committee:
“The Department of Education managed the funding package and the £3·8 million relates to money which that Department identified as not being required. It was therefore declared as a reduced requirement from the Centre.
As already stated, this funding package was managed by DE and the £3·8 million identified was not brought to this Department’s attention. Junior Ministers are writing to the Department of Education to ascertain if this reduced requirement was reported to the Education Committee”.
Mr O’Dowd: One other lesson that I have learned in political life is to never ask a question unless you know the answer. If Mr Bradley had stayed at the Education Committee meeting on Friday, he would know the answer to that question.
Mr D Bradley: I was present for the whole meeting.
Mr O’Dowd: In that case, you must not have been listening.
The Department of Education managed the fund. However, the Departments responsible for handing back that money — and it may come as a shock and an inconvenience to Mr Bradley — were the Department of Health and the Department for Social Development. Mr Bradley wants to criticise a Minister for handing back that money — I am sure that Ms Ritchie will be in her seat at some point. [Interruption.]
The Member should check the minutes of the Committee for Education. As I said, the Department for Social Development and the Department of Health were responsible for handing back that money.
I mentioned that £27 million was handed back from the education and library boards. Had the boards not contributed £20 million to the classroom assistants’ dispute, they would have handed back £47 million this financial year, which the parties across the Chamber are defending. That is a layer of bureaucracy and administration that is soaking up funds that could go to the extended schools and other facilities.
During Question Time, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure talked about how Departments have to take different decisions on various issues. Mr Hamilton was right: £50 million was handed back from the capital build fund, including £21 million from one project. That was because land that the Department of Education was getting from the Department for Social Development was found to be contaminated, which resulted in a delay in the land being handed over. That was no one’s fault.
When Members banter figures back and forth across the Chamber, they should be aware of the facts behind those figures. Until we grasp the nettle of taking decisions about the economy and have debates about how we run the economy — instead of today’s debate, which has been a finger-pointing exercise about who is to blame for what, and so on — we will continue with the same rigmarole year in, year out. Let us take bold decisions in the future, and let us, as locally elected politicians with collective responsibility, start taking control of our destiny.
Mr Weir: Earlier in the debate, Declan O’Loan, when leading off for the SDLP, made a true comment. He said that, because this was one of a number of debates on the budgetary process, there was a danger that we would hear a good deal of repetition in Members’ remarks. Unfortunately, that is what has happened.
I pledge that I will try to avoid saying anything novel in my remarks that will add to the sum total of human understanding. The only reasonably novel remarks have been made by Back-Benchers, who are in competition to express their humility. The Member who is due to speak after me is Mr Basil McCrea — that, at least, will be an occasion on which the humility will end.
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Mr Weir: I will, humbly, give way.
Mr B McCrea: The Member has not yet said that he is humble. If he wants to say that, I will concur.
Mr Weir: I am more than happy to declare my level of humility in this process. As I indicated, the humility of my contribution will become abundantly clear over the next few minutes.
When one examines the budgetary process, two issues are uppermost in people’s minds. One was the reason why a number of us were at the gates of Stormont with various representatives from the trade unions today. The first of those two issues is a fear or concern to ensure that front-line services are fully protected in any budgetary process.
Secondly, there is a challenge on the Assembly as a whole and, in particular, the Executive, to ensure that we do things differently. Stephen Farry made reference to that. On that second point, if we do exactly the same as a direct rule Minister, but with a Northern Ireland accent, people will say that the Assembly is some form of expensive white elephant. We must achieve things in a different fashion.
We have a Budget that is capable of ensuring that front-line services are protected. Continual reference has been made to the 3% efficiency savings; let us remember that the purpose of that is to redirect money to ensure that there is a shift from bureaucracy to front-line services.
There is no desire to make people wear a hair shirt, but there is a desire to recycle money to ensure on-the-ground delivery. There is genuine concern that when Departments are asked to make that level of efficiency savings, they do not look at slaughtering some of their sacred cows, and do not look at ways in which they can change bureaucracy and programmes, but that they instead look for easy targets. It is important that the Finance Committee and the Public Accounts Committee ensure that Departments be scrutinised at that level to ensure that they deliver up front.
It is disappointing that the Health Department has handed back more than £50 million — to which reference has been made, and with good reason — at a time when we are being told about great shortages in that Department and others.
I take on board what Peter Robinson, the then Finance Minister, said last week. He stated that it is better to have no spend than bad spend. It is not simply a question of ensuring that the books balance at the end of the year. There is a challenge for Departments in respect of their spending — be it on large capital programmes or recurrent expenditure — to ensure that we do not reach a situation whereby money is not delivered to front-line services.
Similarly, Departments have to apply a degree of prioritisation and structuring. Declan O’Loan mentioned the Health Service, and said that some units perform better than others, which is undoubtedly the case. There is a need for structural change; there is a need to ensure that best practice exists. In reality, it is about ensuring that Departments are fit for purpose — that they can fully deliver on their promises, and genuinely fund front-line services.
Mr Beggs: The Member has been critical of the fact that the Department of Health returned £50 million. Is the Member pleased that a major part of that was as a result of more efficient purchasing in the pharmaceutical section by buying products at a more efficient level? Is it not good that £20 million was saved, and that that money has come back to the Northern Ireland Budget, which can be spent in subsequent years?
Mr Weir: Any efficiency savings are good. However, it was identified that £20 million was saved at the end of the year. Why was it not identified earlier in the cycle?
Mr B McCrea: For goodness’ sake.
Mr Weir: Well, that meant that money that could have been brought into the delivery of front-line services had to be held back. That occurred in the Health Department when pressure is on to provide a better Health Service.
I am not blaming the present Health Minister for that situation — that has been happening in the Health Service for quite a time. The Health Service has received much more resources than in the past, but nobody could argue that people who use the Health Service are more satisfied.
What applies to the Health Department can also apply to other Departments. It is about ensuring that Departments use their resources properly and deliver better front-line services. From that point of view, it is important to consider doing things differently. The Budget allowed things to be done differently — the regional rate was frozen; action was taken on the business rate; and changes were made regarding free public transport, which will take effect in the autumn.
Those are areas in which value has been added for people in Northern Ireland. Our economy needs to be restructured — unless it is about creating wealth, it will simply come down to how we slice up the cake.
Members can make valid points for services that need funding, because often government is not a choice between a good area of spend and a bad area of spend but between competing priorities that everyone agrees are fundamentally good.
If we are to increase the size of the cake, we must ensure that the economy grows. The Executive proposals will help us to move slowly towards a better-structured economy; one that creates conditions that could lead to the growth of the private sector rather than the decimation of the public sector.
Our actions need to be more imaginative. With respect to some Members, actions that have proved unsuccessful in the past cannot be used again. For example, in the first Assembly, we had ring-fenced Executive funds. They were meant to create much more cross-cutting thinking — in practice, it meant that Departments that had bids rejected simply made recycled bids that were jazzed up to look as if they could be connected with another Department, but it did not lead to different thinking.
Different thinking is needed. Sammy Wilson pointed out that expenditure for schools here is among the lowest in the United Kingdom. If schools had greater freedom to spend their own budgets rather than money being held by either the Department or the education and library boards, school principals could focus and deliver on the important issues.
That is a much better way in which to operate than the contradictory position of the Alliance Party, which seems to argue that more integrated schools should be built because there is too much capacity in the system. I see that Mr Ford is shaking his head — he could perhaps counter by saying that some schools should close to accommodate those new integrated schools. If there is oversupply in the system, building additional schools in a new sector is the last thing that should be done. I am more than happy to give way if the Member has a list of schools that he wishes to see closed to make way for his new schools. However, I suspect that the silence from those Benches will be deafening.
Mr Ford: I will not take time away from the Member’s speech — I intend to address that issue when I get my turn.
Mr Weir: I thought that the Member said when he gets his “term.” I thought that the Alliance Party envisaged such success that it will choose the Department of Education in the next mandate.
We have good Supply Estimates that could help to address the fundamental issues that face Northern Ireland.
Mr B McCrea: I address the Assembly with complete humility, humble as I am, and following the learned words of others who have spoken before me. There is another word to go along with “humble”, and that word is “humanity”. What we must address is the purpose of the Assembly and the Budget, and I hope to address both with a certain amount of honesty.
It appears to me that there is an issue about our education system. The system cannot be changed in the timescale envisaged or without spending considerably more resources than we have heretofore given to it. It seems strange that the extended schools programme, which has the support of all Members, should be cut drastically. One would have thought that someone, somewhere, would have found the £5 million that is needed to keep that programme going.
I listened to Mr O’Dowd having words with Mr Dominic Bradley about who was responsible and who was at fault. Surely, what really matters is that those schools will lose their funding and that someone must take responsibility. Members may start pointing their fingers, but the responsibility falls within the remit of the Minister of Education.
I am about to say something important on this matter, and I am happy for Mr Maskey to intervene. Here and now, Members can take it that the two Ulster Unionist Ministers will be placing the extended schools programme funding at the top of their priorities. That is unequivocal. It is absolutely necessary to get the funding issue addressed.
Members know that funding in the monitoring rounds will be tight.
Mr A Maskey: Does that mean that the two Ministers in question will go to the Minister of Finance and Personnel or the Minister of Education and offer some of the projects that they have already prioritised and that are in the spending queue to replace some of the deficiencies that may appear in the budget of the Department of Education? That is the only way in which the funding can be achieved. If that is not the case, it is only rhetoric, although it may be well-intended rhetoric. Unless someone offers money from another project, the Member’s words mean nothing.
Mr B McCrea: Honi soit qui mal y pense, which means, “shame be to him who thinks evil of it”. When one stands up and makes a genuine commitment to address an issue and make a difference — [Interruption.] — one gets such a response.
Mr A Maskey: I asked you a question. Can you not answer it?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Please address remarks through the Chair.
Mr B McCrea: I am prepared to make a commitment, but Members opposite are so keen to get up and chitter that they do not listen. That is what is wrong with this place: there is too much talking at people and not enough talking to people. If Members want the issue dealt with, the Executive should get together and work out their priorities. The Executive should admit that it is shameful to talk about taking funding away from extended schools in some of the most socially deprived areas. They should have some form of conscience and be able to sit down and decide how to provide the funding. Every Minister should look to see how the money can be found. The Ulster Unionist Ministers will give a commitment to work with colleagues to address the issue. Is that clear enough for you? We will all have a look at the issue.
Mr A Maskey: It is ridiculous for Basil McCrea to say that. I said that he may mean well — and I am not second-guessing or questioning his integrity in the matter. However, he should not dare to lecture any other Member about having a conscience about the Budget. His Ministers are on the Executive: they have sat down with the other Ministers on the Executive; they have deliberated on the Budget; and they have agreed the Budget. The Member should not try to lecture the rest of us.
I am simply saying that, rather than a Member stating that he speaks on behalf of his party’s two Ministers, those Ministers should make a firm commitment at the next meeting of the Executive. The Member cannot, whether he likes it or not, make a commitment on their behalf. I imagine that the two Ministers concerned have many projects in their respective queues of priorities and that they are committed to delivering those on behalf of the people whom they represent.
It is, therefore, ridiculous that the Assembly must listen to Basil McCrea speaking from his high horse. All Members have a conscience and know what they are in the Assembly to deliver; that may be based on the individual party manifestos or the collective responsibility that the Executive established in the Programme for Government. I do not like listening to someone with that high-horse mentality, and I am not prepared to do so.
Mr B McCrea: Sometimes, even I regret allowing Members to intervene — and look at how much time has been taken up. The Member had a chance to make a speech. He should vow to persuade his party’s Minister of Education to honour her commitments to the people of Northern Ireland. The funding of the extended schools programme is the issue, and the Ulster Unionist Party will match any amount that the Member can produce. When the Ulster Unionists came forward with money, the Sinn Féin Minister could not provide match funding. The Member has repeatedly tried to turn the debate into an argument, but I am standing here to say that the Ulster Unionist Party realised that there is a problem and is now trying to provide assistance.
Furthermore, I will not be told on what subjects I may or may not address the House, and the Member will not lecture me on this issue as he has on others previously. This is a discussion; this is the time for Members to introduce ideas. Early learning and primary schools are foremost amongst the areas that the Assembly must address.
It is absolutely ridiculous that, in Northern Ireland, primary schools receive only 62% of the funding received by secondary schools and 10% or 20% less than primary schools in England and Wales. The Assembly must find a way to match that level of funding. If it does not, primary school leaders, who are at the forefront of the trial of the extended schools programme, will have to take time off work due to illness, and, ultimately, they will be unable to do their jobs. If the Assembly were a private company, it would be legally responsible for that eventuality, because Members know that there is stress in the system, and they are not doing anything about it. The Assembly is forcing school leaders to struggle on without addressing the issues that affect them.
The debate on the Budget must extend beyond academic selection or academic criteria to how to move this place forward. If the Assembly is to address the legacy of the past and prepare young people for the future, it must invest more in schools. There was a discussion on whether the economy is at the centre of the Assembly’s agenda. The economy is only part of the agenda. Education, education, education — that is the only way out of the poverty trap, and a good education is the only sustainable advantage that people can gain.
This body politic must find a way to deal properly with education, because it requires significant investment. I talk about making various changes, and I can suggest where the money should be spent: for example, the Assembly must develop an effective strategy for 14- to 19-year-olds, increase nursery provision and find a way to ensure that the extended schools programme is available not only to those schools that have been identified but to all schools.
I have a direct question to ask in the Chamber today: will the Minister of Education allow primary schools to carry forward their reserves to keep the programme going for another year, or will the Department of Education insist on drawing them back into the centre?
When it comes to how to make progress, I do not agree with the idea that the declining demographic should necessarily mean a decrease in funding. The Assembly should take the opportunity that it provides to invest in schools and children and try to achieve better pupil:teacher ratios, because that is the one measure that continues to make a difference.
If the Assembly does not invest in early-years provision, it will have to begin to invest more in prisons, social welfare, health services, and so forth. Education requires a long-term commitment that cannot be met through incrementalism. There must be a fundamental review on education and education policy. If such a review were introduced honestly to the Executive, the Ulster Unionist Party’s Ministers will respond in kind.
Mr A Maginness: On 29 January 2008, the SDLP voted against the Budget, and neither my party nor I regrets having done so, because there are fundamental problems with it.
The concerns that our party raised — rightly — at that time have been brought into stark relief today, even though a few months have passed. It is important that we focus on those concerns again.
I will make one general point before I discuss those concerns in detail. The economy in the UK and throughout western Europe has experienced a fundamental crisis in credit, financial stability, the property market, land values, and so forth. A great deal of the Budget was predicated on the fact that assets could be sold off in order to derive capital with which to finance the Budget and its programmes. During the debate that I mentioned, our party said that that was a precarious foundation on which to base any Budget. We have been proven correct.
Mr Beggs, in his earlier address, referred to the decrease in the value of lands at Crossnacreevy. He told the House that there had been a massive devaluation of that land. If that were the case, he asked, how would we finance the nutrient scheme that the farmers need? That is a fundamental question that needs to be answered, not just in relation to Crossnacreevy, but to other schemes.
It is important to remember that, prior to the Budget’s being settled, when we were discussing the vexed issue of social housing, our party was told that we were crying wolf about the financing of social housing and that there was sufficient money in the Budget. However, we remained firm, and together with the Minister for Social Development, we demanded additional funding for housing. We got £205 million extra. That was important, because we now see the value of having that money as opposed to looking for funds from the realisation of assets.
Therein lies a lesson: we should not predicate a Budget on the basis of future capital realisation. That situation has thrown the Department of Finance and Personnel into a great deal of confusion as to where the money will come from. I think that if one plots the next financial year, there will be some very nasty surprises as it develops. Unfortunately, I do not believe that the British Exchequer will bail us out, particularly given that we are sending £170 million of unspent money back to it. That sends the very sorry message to the British Exchequer that either we do not need the money or we are incapable of spending it when we get it on a plate. Sending so much money back illustrates that there is a fundamental flaw somewhere.
There is a very fine primary school in my constituency that has 300 pupils, 75 of whom are on the special needs register. At present, their educational needs are met by two full-time special educational needs teachers — one of whom provides a specific reading programme entitled Reading Recovery — and an outreach-support teacher.
The school chooses which children need support using standardised scores in reading and maths. A score of 100 is considered average. Children whose scores are below 85 are chosen for support. Children who score between 85 and 95 are supported through the Rainbow Reading programme, which is funded through extended schools. Parents of all children are offered support through the parents’ support programme, which is also funded through extended schools.
Unfortunately, because of the reduction in the extended schools programme, the school cannot afford to provide full-time special educational needs support, the Reading Recovery programme, the Rainbow Reading programme, the breakfast club or the parents’ support programme during the school year 2008-09.
The school’s budget has been further reduced through targeting social need. Up to 75% of children used to be entitled to free school meals. With the introduction of family tax credit, that has been reduced to 55%, because parents who avail themselves of the scheme cannot apply for free school meals. Often, those parents have low-paid jobs. When their family tax credits are balanced with the loss of benefits such as free school meals, they are no better off financially. That means that the school must continue to deal with the same social and academic problems, but with a much reduced budget.
I ask the Department of Finance and the Department of Education what hope there is for those 75 children who will be deprived of special educational needs support during the next academic year. Is that the way that a primary-education system should operate in an area of severe deprivation? I appeal to those Departments to remedy that situation because it is replicated across Belfast and across the country.
There are serious problems with the Budget. The Assembly has only scratched the surface of those problems; the next year could be disastrous. Those problems require a united effort from the two parties that dominate the Executive, and they must work together to resolve them. The Assembly can only tell them what is wrong; it cannot force their hands. It can, however, bring public opinion to bear in order to pressurise those parties to get their act together. There is no point in their acting in the usual disparate fashion. A united effort is needed at the centre, particularly in the Department of Finance, to tackle all those problems that other Members and I have outlined in the debate. It is vital for society’s future that that be done.
Today, the trades union movement demonstrated outside the House in order to emphasise its grave concerns about the Budget; not least about efficiency savings, but about threatened job losses among its members, particularly in public services. It is important that the Executive take that on board.
Mr Shannon: I support the motions. One Member mentioned the Irish language Act; given that that would cost £290 million, there is no economic sense for it. That figure is equivalent to the budget for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for almost three years. The DUP will not sign up to an Irish language Utopia — not now, not ever.
I shall focus on how tourism relates to the motion, and I shall make a few comments that, I hope, will be helpful and specific. The Lonely Planet tour guide described Northern Ireland as:
“abuzz with life: the cities are pulsating, the economy is thriving and the people, the lifeblood that courses through the country, are in good spirits”.
Furthermore, in another part of the guide, Belfast is mentioned as one of the top ten cities on the rise. That should kick-start a genuine tourism push which, not unlike the Discover Scotland adverts that were so attractive on TV and in cinemas here, should feed directly to TVs in GB, in the Republic and further afield.
We have the impetus behind us of being in a new dawn with no threat of violence or fear for safety, and that must be exploited. Alongside that, the views of our natural beauty and history, coupled with the vivacity that is linked with anything that originates in Northern Ireland, cannot help but draw others to our shores. For that reason, funding must be set aside to enhance tourism potential, including finance to enable better facilities.
In reply to a question that I asked last week, the Minister Nigel Dodds said that the numbers of cruise liners that will come to Northern Ireland this year will increase from 27 to 36, and that the number of visitors will increase from 41,000 to 54,000 from the cruise liners alone. A great many of those people will visit the abbey in Greyabbey in the Ards Peninsula; I understand that some 10,000 visitors are expected this year.
There is no doubt that the returns from dedicated funding for a concerted international TV advertisement, similar to the adverts for Florida that currently grace our screens, would well outmatch the outlay. Northern Ireland as a whole would be the winner.
Northern Ireland has it all, including rest and recuperation in superior salons and five-star hotels; nature holidays; touring the country and staying in quaint bed and breakfast accommodation; touring in caravans, using our many caravan parks; and shopping in the city, followed by dinner and a show. Therefore, a sincere and earnest push must be made to show that to the rest of the world.
Mr F McCann: It is interesting to listen to the Member run through all the positive aspects of the North; however, the serious social deprivation that exists in many areas must also be taken into consideration. In many ways, that is often forgotten. One of the main strategies for dealing with social deprivation is neighbourhood renewal, yet that seems set to be transferred out of the control of DSD and into the control of local government at a time when central Government should be funding it to such an extent that social deprivation can be seriously dealt with.
Will the Member agree that 100,000 people who are on incapacity benefit are classed as being economically inactive, and are therefore not included in the unemployment figures? If those people were included in the figures, unemployment would be far higher than is reflected in the current figures.
Mr Shannon: I concur with those comments, and, based on my experience from my advice centre, I echo the Member’s points on incapacity benefit, disability living allowance (DLA) and deprivation.
Wha’ cud richtly bae cried the hidden Jewel i Ulster’s Croon – Strangford bes an unbeknownst gem i global terms an’ yet hit bes undootedly true at the breath taakin view fae Scrabo Tower i Newtonards wi. Hit’s view tae the Mournes oan yin side Scotlan’ an’ the watter aa anither an Bilfawst city ahin iz, bes a view at cannae bae equalled ir metched. I the toon o’ Newtonards hitsel’, we hae a furst cless hotel an nicht lif’, we hae a meercet ivry waek, we hae picture hooses, a great shappin centre an beauty salons aplenty. Gif ye mother doon the peninsula ye’ll cum oan clatters o’ beauty an’ wil’lif’ wi’ monie coffee an’ tay shaps, an’ antiques shap an furst cless aitin hooses. History an heirskeip ir rich aboot the Ards wi’ the weel kent Scrabo Tower an’ Mountstewart Hoose an gairdens. Forebye thon we hae an example o’ the onie waarkin faschin village o’ Portavogie an’ the beauty o’ the lan’scape alang wi’ caravan pairks an B&B. We hae the Exploris i Portaferry at gets mair nor 200,000 visitors ivry yeir an’ hes the capacity fer monie mair.
Strangford could fairly be called the hidden jewel in the Province’s crown, but, globally, it is an unknown gem. The breathtaking view in every direction from Scrabo Tower in Newtownards — towards the Mournes, over the sea to Scotland and towards Belfast city — cannot be equalled. Newtownards has a superior hotel, nightlife, a weekly market, cinemas, a great shopping complex and beauty salons aplenty. Driving down the peninsula, one finds beauty and wildlife aplenty, with many coffee and tea shops, antique shops and superior places in which to eat.
History and culture is rich throughout the Ards Peninsula, including the well-known Scrabo Tower and Mount Stewart house and gardens. Portavogie is our only example of a working fishing village, and that is combined with the beauty of the landscape, caravan parks and B&B accommodation.
Exploris in Portaferry already attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year, and has the capacity to attract many more. If one takes the ferry from Portaferry to Strangford village, the journey time of eight minutes cuts out more than an hour and a half of driving and covers the route taken by Princess Alexandra in 2003 as part of a theme day to recognise excellence in tourism throughout the UK.
For more modern cultural tourists, the Ards Peninsula provides the Battletown gallery, which is gaining an international reputation, and, if one wants not only the opportunity to purchase but to make superior pottery, one can visit the Eden Pottery Centre.
On the other side of the Ards Peninsula, near Comber, one comes upon Castle Espie Wildfowl and Wetland Centre, as well as restaurants and archaeological and historical links to the monastic life of Saint Patrick. County Down’s history covers 7,000 years, and no history buff could help but be enthralled by such evident preservation in the area of days gone by.
Even with all those attractions in a single place, it is clear that people in the rest of Northern Ireland — never mind those in the wider world — are generally unaware of them. The only people who are fully aware of what Strangford has to offer are those who are blessed enough to have been born there or who have passed through the area.
The two-day Northern Ireland Game Fair at Ballywalter Park attracted a record number of country-sports enthusiasts to Strangford — more than 25,000. That is another field in which the area has the potential to excel. A group of American country-sports enthusiasts — along with their lovely wives — took a five-day trip, spending £50,000. Country sports already employ 3,000 people and generate £45 million for the Province’s economy, and, if Strangford’s successes could be repeated in the rest of the Province, there is great potential for more business.
The bottom line is that, given the opportunity, Strangford — and Northern Ireland — has the potential to boost tourism and for it to become a major factor in our economy. Funding must be allocated for widespread promotion and, as a place of outstanding beauty, culture, diversity and modern facilities, Strangford must be given the recognition that it is due. Such an all-encompassing mix of qualities should be promoted.
Although no other constituency offers quite the same potential as Strangford, all constituencies — and the Province as a whole — should be able to display themselves and create a showcase for the world. In order to do that, funding must be set aside, and I urge the Minister to ensure that that is done and that people from County Tyrone to County Antrim — from Eskra to Ballywalter — benefit from the financial boost that will come when the world realises what a gem we have in Strangford and, indeed, in Northern Ireland. I support the motions.
Mr Ford: I will attempt to look slightly wider than my constituency. I had hoped to congratulate the humble Back-Bencher from Strangford, Mr Simon Hamilton, on his promotion to the Front Bench, but, unfortunately, he managed to escape before I was able to speak. I was wondering whether, by the time this debate was over, Mrs Foster, Mr Donaldson or Mr Hamilton would be responding on behalf of the Executive.
I will take up where my colleague Dr Farry left off, specifically concerning some aspects of health and social services expenditure. Clearly, there is a major funding gap in relation to mental-health services. In Northern Ireland, approximately 8% of the health and social care budget is spent on mental health, whereas, in other regions of the United Kingdom, spending averages 12%. That is a huge shortfall.
Every party in the Chamber refers to the Bamford Report and to the need to ensure that services are adequately funded for people with mental illnesses. Nevertheless, we have a huge gap in services, and we are simply failing to meet the needs of those citizens.
At different times, that can be a substantial part of our population. Indeed, I was told recently by a psychiatrist that of those who are currently economically inactive — [Laughter.] He gave his opinion entirely professionally, although I did not see him in a patient capacity. [Interruption.]
That may be considered a good joke, but the fact that 40% of our economically inactive fellow citizens suffer from a mental illness is an indication of what we are losing economically, as well as socially, by failing to invest in mental-health services.
That loss has a knock-on effect on our overall economy. Consider the number of people who suffer from different stages of mental illness: those people have a wide range of talents and could do all kinds of jobs. They could contribute to society, but we are all losing out on that because we do not provide the mental-health services that enable them to take up employment. That is a clear example of how investment in mental health would pay economic dividends. It is also a clear example of a failure to practise joined-up government. Individual departmental budgets are being considered without account being taken either of the knock-on effect on other areas or of the significant opportunity costs that arise as a result of our failure to address the needs of those who are mentally ill. Let us ask the Executive to take such matters into account when they consider future budgeting. In future, will we hear a DETI or a DEL Minister pointing out the need for money to be invested in mental health if we are to prosper as a society generally?
An issue that is often related to people’s mental health is learning disability — although it is, of course, a different matter. It was mentioned alongside mental-health issues in the Bamford Review, and it is similarly underfunded. It might be that many of those who suffer from a learning disability would not make a significant contribution to the economy, but there are undoubtedly those who could. More particularly, if social-care services were better organised to cater for those who suffer from a learning disability, many carers could make a contribution to the economy. In some cases, many patients have been removed from some of the bigger institutions, such as Muckamore Abbey Hospital in my constituency, yet we have failed to ensure that the costs of community care — which, in many cases, are greater than the costs of caring for people in large institutions — are met properly. As a result, some people do not receive all that they ought to in the community, and they — and their families and carers — continue to suffer because of that failure to invest properly. Again, that lack of investment has a knock-on effect on society.
No doubt the Minister who is currently acting on behalf of the Department of Finance and Personnel would be upset if I did not mention environmental matters. What has happened in the past couple of months, since the Budget was finalised, has shown the total inadequacy of the transportation funding in DRD’s budget.
Belfast continues to be the only city of its size in Europe that seems to imagine that it can deal with a commuting problem by building more roads. Yet, as Stephen Farry pointed out, 80% of the Department for Regional Development’s budget is tilted towards roads and only 20% towards public transport. Certainly, more investment in trains and buses was announced in that budget. The simple reality is that, as far as heavy rail is concerned, half the trains in the current investment package are required to replace redundant stock, principally on the Larne line. Only half the trains will be available to improve the quality of existing services in any way. Moreover, there are continuing problems with the Enterprise service, with the rolling stock now at the point where it is failing to meet the needs of those who wish to travel between the two major cities on this island. A great deal more investment is needed in that service.
DRD tends to make small, piecemeal efforts to provide what it terms “park-and-ride” facilities. It is open to question whether providing a few dozen parking spaces on the Ballyhenry Road, which is a couple of hundred metres from the Sandyknowes roundabout, will encourage anybody to drive through Sandyknowes to make use of them. The Transport Holding Company has invested in land for potential park-and-ride facilities, but further investment has not been forthcoming to enable that land to be used for that purpose. That is a fairly crass example of a lack of joined-up government — short-term budgetary considerations mean that the land has been purchased but is not being put to the use for which it has been designed.
We need to ensure that all those aspects of transport policy show that government is not just joined up but is sustainable. When we see the way that oil prices are rising, continuing to depend on the current level of private car transport is simply unsustainable. Yet we have seen no sign that that aspect of the Budget is being reversed.
The cost of fuel has knock-on effects in areas such as the warm homes scheme, and a wider knock-on effect on social housing. Although there has been some additional investment in those areas, there is a vast amount that still needs to be done if we are to provide decent living conditions for many of our people.
I put again to the Minister the question that Stephen Farry posed as I briefly touch on the environment agency that she is proposing: what is the opportunity cost of not having an independent environmental protection agencycompared to the relatively miniscule cost of establishing and running one?
Despite the fact that neither Sammy Wilson nor Peter Weir is in the Chamber, I want to refer to the schools estate, which was discussed earlier, and about which my party received criticism. The Alliance Party fully supports the concept of integrated education being available for those who wish it for their children. There are some cases when that might involve building a new school. The post-primary situation in north Down, for example, where there is a shortage of places, is a clear indication that expansion is needed in that area.
The reality for most cases, however, is that the option to move towards integrated education is an option for transformation, which is becoming increasingly popular and which is the option that my party has said makes sense with regard to public expenditure. To suggest that we have talked only about new-build grant-maintained integrated schools is simply not factual. In that respect, I declare an interest as a governor of Round Tower Integrated Primary School in Antrim, which is an excellent example of a good school that has transformed, which is making full use of the capital that has been invested in its building, and which has an increasing demand for places. That is a good example of how good relations work done by an existing school has resulted in a logical transformation.
Declining school rolls in almost every area of the Province will result in more of what Stephen Farry talked about earlier: the idea of two primary schools in a village finding a way to work together — which might be an amalgamation but might also be something short of that — as the way to ensure the best use of available money. There ought to be a greater incentive from the Department of Education to encourage similar ways for schools to come together. The Alliance Party has made it clear that the public purse needs to see that different type of creativity in what is planned for education.
I was asked earlier by Mr Weir which schools the Alliance Party would propose for closure. The reality is that in his own constituency, when Groomsport Primary School, a couple of years after transformation to integrated status, still had a remarkably low roll and was proposed for closure by the South Eastern Education and Library Board, it was Alliance Party members who said that that was the only realistic way of saving on the public purse. It was DUP members who demanded that a school with approximately 30 pupils was kept open. Therefore, I am not sure that the lectures that were delivered across the Chamber earlier are necessarily entirely right.
The issue has to be: what is the best rational use of the school estate, and not knee jerks. As Stephen Farry made clear earlier, the Alliance Party does not support this Supply resolution. However, having divided the House on the Budget earlier this year, we shall not be dividing the House this afternoon.
Mrs D Kelly: That children should be placed at the centre of society as fully respected and supported members is increasingly upheld nationally and internationally from the perspective of rights and best practice. Flowing from that, the desire to ensure that all children experience better outcomes in their lives is a compelling and influential force.
It demands that organisations examine how they can work together to answer a fundamental question, namely: what do we want for our children? They then need to chart a process in order to achieve those outcomes. Therefore, it is dismaying to find that there is no protected funding for children and young people in the Programme for Government or the Budget. The play and leisure policy that is in draft form is now considering the age range of 0 to 18 years rather than pre-school years as was first envisaged.
It is also sad to note that no funding has been set aside for any projects this year, and, over the next two years, a little over £2 million has been set aside for play and leisure. Yet everyone knows the value and importance of play in developing the abilities of children and young people, particularly in their formative years, and its role in contributing to the development of well-rounded individuals.
This morning, I listened to an interview with some young people who were facing their exams. They said that the exam stress in their latter years of primary school through to university is intolerable. One young man felt that stress was leading to harmful behaviour and to the culture of young people taking their own lives. Therefore it is not acceptable that no money has been allocated in the Programme for Government for flagship projects or for children and young people.
Some groups that were previously funded by the Executive programme children’s fund or by the extended schools programme have folded. There is a great deal of uncertainty about what we are doing for our children. Although play has an important role in children’s development, affordable childcare also has a role to play in developing a strong, vibrant economy, which is the Government’s main objective, yet many Ministers seem to fail to recognise its value and necessity. For a strong economy to emerge, we must invest at the softer end, that is, in the provision of children’s and young people’s activities. We must support social-economy businesses, among others, to provide affordable childcare.
Childcare funding should be ring-fenced. There are arguments for and against mainstreaming and ring-fencing funding, but such funding for children and young people would have sent a clear signal that we have inclusive plans for children and young people that will lead to better outcomes, not only for individuals but for society as a whole.
Children and young people are among the most marginalised in society: so too are the homeless and those on housing waiting lists. However, at least they can be thankful that the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, negotiated a substantial £205 million increase above what was offered in the draft Budget. Last year, she secured an extra £50 million, which allowed an extra 1,000 houses to be started over and above the original projected out-turn for that year. However, there are major pressures on DSD’s budget. Some £80 million of the budget is predicated on house and land sale receipts, but, as many Members said, there are concerns about the decrease in land values and about Housing Executive house sales drying up. That figure now looks unrealistic. Fortunately, however, Margaret Ritchie secured agreement from the Finance Minister that help would be available if events beyond her control were to threaten the attainment of her new social and affordable house building targets. The Minister of Finance and Personnel must live up to that commitment.
The Minister for Social Development has limited resources available for a scheme designed to help people who are struggling to stay on the housing ladder. A mortgage rescue scheme is an essential part of Minister Ritchie’s new housing agenda, and it deserves more support from the Finance Minister if it is to help people through a very difficult time.
The Minister for Social Development has continued her Department’s record high spending on the warm homes scheme, which is the Executive’s main response to fuel poverty. However, she has said that although the record £35 million spend on warm homes will help to improve energy efficiency and keep many families out of fuel poverty, it is not sufficient to respond to the crisis facing many people this coming winter.
Recent fuel price hikes, and other steep increases in the price of food and other essentials, have resulted in a fuel-poverty crisis. Although DETI has some responsibility for energy policy and price regulation, and Westminster is responsible for the winter fuel payment, Margaret Ritchie has demonstrated leadership and established a task force, comprising relevant Departments and agencies, to co-ordinate efforts to combat fuel poverty. She has already written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to request a substantial increase in the winter fuel payment and a complete refocusing of that benefit to ensure that it reaches not only pensioners but other low-income households who will struggle this winter. Her efforts must now command the full support of Executive colleagues, and more resources must flow from the Department of Finance and Personnel.
The DUP is reported to have a shopping list in its latest tactical negotiations with Gordon Brown at Westminster — an increase in the winter fuel payment must be placed at the top of that list. The voluntary and community sector will undergo radical change in the period ahead as certain funding streams from Europe and elsewhere start to run out. The Executive must be satisfied that sufficient funding is in place to support the sector during that period of transition. The Minister for Social Development has, courageously, started to refocus the funding available for neighbourhood renewal to ensure that limited funds have maximum impact on the ground in tackling deprivation.
For too long, much of that community funding has been regarded as paid posts for community activists, rather than as targeted spending on tackling deprivation. The Minister for Social Development is prepared to make difficult decisions, and she deserves greater support from other Ministers. Neighbourhood renewal is an Executive initiative, and all relevant Ministers must be prepared to fund it. The Department of Finance and Personnel must encourage other Departments to fund their fair share of the programme, and, as has been highlighted in the Chamber today, tackling poverty — and child poverty in particular — is an Executive priority. No poor children live in well-to-do families. However, it is sad that no funds have been set aside for children and young people in the Programme for Government and the Budget. That is clearly wrong, and I urge the Executive to rethink.
Mr Gallagher: I welcome the section of the motion on the superannuation scheme for health workers and the amount of money set aside for that scheme. However, I want clarification on how we reached that position, because, in the past, there were miscalculations in relation to that superannuation scheme, and the public need reassurances that similar errors will not resurface. Furthermore, I want an assurance that the money allocated to the scheme will not impact on the delivery of front-line services in that sector.
As has been highlighted in the Assembly on previous occasions, many schemes involving children, such as early-years provision and after-school clubs, are now at risk. Some of those schemes will cease at the end of June 2008; I want an assurance that funding for the coming year will be available to help those organisations retain key staff and reassure the communities that they serve.
The issue of water charges was raised earlier. From 1 April 2008, the business sector has been obliged to pay water charges. Those businesses are already under pressure and now have the additional burden of water bills arriving at their premises.
Some of those businesses had no prior warning about their bills until they arrived in the post; certainly, none of them had had any prior discussions with anyone in the Department for Regional Development or Northern Ireland Water.
Even more worrying is the fact that, since 1 April 2008, water bills have been delivered to clergymen in parish churches. Some of those bills have been shockingly high. Contact that has been made with my constituency office indicates that those bills average £500. It is disgraceful that parish churches should have to pay such water charges. As everyone understands, in no way is water used to that extent in any of our parish churches anywhere in Northern Ireland. Indeed, rather than billing them for water, we should follow example of the Scottish Parliament, which exempted Churches and charitable organisations from water charges.
Will the Minister provide the House with some clarification on water bills that average £500? Do those bills represent 50% of the charges that will be billed in April 2009? The Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, has not given any clarification. If those bills represent 50% of the total charge, which will rise to 100% in April 2009, can Church authorities expect to receive water bills totalling about £1,000?
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): This has been a useful and wide-ranging debate. Many points have been raised, and although some of them have not always been pertinent to the Supply resolutions and the Budget (No. 2) Bill, which I will introduce shortly, they touch on the wider Budget considerations that Members feel are important to reflect on and discuss. With your latitude, Mr Deputy Speaker, and given the spirit in which Members raised those points, I will do my best to respond as fully as possible in the 45 minutes that have been allocated to me.
Mitchel McLaughlin, the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, spoke about the Committee’s role in the budgetary process. I thank the Chairperson for the Committee’s support for the motions, and I welcome his views on the important role that Statutory Committees played during the monitoring rounds. The outgoing Minister of Finance and Personnel wholeheartedly agreed with those views. He said so repeatedly, and encouraged his Executive colleagues to engage proactively with the Statutory Committees.
The Chairperson also highlighted the helpful contribution that the Committee made to the previous Budget process. I acknowledge that contribution. Looking forward, DFP officials have initiated a review of the Budget process to seek to improve future Budgets. It is hoped that that work will be completed by the autumn. I am aware that the outgoing Minister of Finance and Personnel specifically asked his officials to continue to work with the Committee on that issue.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel spoke about accelerated passage, and I acknowledge his concern about the use of that process. Officials will certainly review procedures to determine whether there is any possibility of processing Budget Bills without the need for accelerated passage. However, at present, it is necessary to ensure that public services do not run out of money. As I said in proposing the motion, if we did not deal with that issue, Departments would run out of money in the middle of the summer, when none of us is about the place. I know that Members do not want that to happen.
Mr Storey also mentioned that financial training is available for staff in the different Departments and asked whether it would be available for Members. In the last Supply debate, in February, the outgoing Minister of Finance and Personnel offered to make his officials available to provide training to Members at any time. Unfortunately, that kind offer has not yet been taken up. I reiterate that DFP officials are willing to help in any way that they can and to provide briefings. I encourage all Members who wish to have a wider understanding of the issues — not just those who sit on the Finance and Personnel Committee — to take up that kind offer.
Mr Roy Beggs said that he wanted more information on issues in the Estimates. I take his point. It reinforces the need for better engagement between the Departments, which are best placed to give those explanations, and their Committees. Hopefully that will happen, given that a review is ongoing.
Mr Beggs and Mr O’Loan mentioned the downturn in the property market. In that context, it is essential that all Departments take every possible action to secure the planned level of capital receipts that was set out in the agreed Budget, so that capital investment projects can be taken forward as planned. Although there are pressures, particularly in the residential market, I am confident that Departments — working with the support of the capital realisation task force, which Members mentioned — will be able to maximise the level of capital receipts.
Many comments have been made about Ministers not working in silos, but working together as a whole Executive. There is a need to consider the level of capital receipts in the broader financial context this year. That issue will be addressed in the June monitoring round.
The value of land at Crossnacreevy was mentioned by several Members. The valuation that was included in the Budget was based on the best possible advice at that time. I am aware that the Minister of Agriculture raised the issue with the outgoing Finance Minister, and the Executive will wish to consider the best way forward. It will be a material issue in the strategic stocktaking that is planned for later this year.
Funding for children and young people was mentioned by most Members who spoke — in particular, Roy Beggs, Declan O’Loan, Dominic Bradley, Simon Hamilton, Basil McCrea, Alban Maginness and the final Member to speak, Mr Gallagher. As part of the recent Budget process, central funds — including the children and young people’s funding package — were mainstreamed, as Members know. That was to allow Departments the necessary flexibility to manage such issues in the context of their overall positions. In response to Departments’ concerns, significant additional allocations were made at the time of both the draft and revised Budgets to ensure that all worthwhile projects could continue.
I concur absolutely with Roy Beggs on the issue. Frankly, as I know from my constituency, after-school clubs do not care whether the money comes from OFMDFM, the Department of Health or the Department of Education. They only wish to know whether they will be able to continue their work. I declare an interest in the matter, because my children attend an after-school club in Brookeborough, County Fermanagh. It is an excellent facility, and the children enjoy it very much. Therefore, I, and the whole Executive, wish such clubs to continue.
However, as Mr Storey said, the main problem is that individual Ministers have decided not to continue funding certain projects and have, instead, sought to lay the blame at the door of the Department of Finance and Personnel. I dispute absolutely the suggestion that my party is to blame in any way for the reduction in extended schools or after-school provision. The Executive will continue to consider the amount of resources available to individual public services, but the primary responsibility lies with individual Departments to prioritise their resources.
Basil McCrea made the excellent point, in the debate on extended schools, that the funding gap identified by the Minister of Education was £4 million, compared to a budget of over £1·7 billion — 0·2% of the available funds. That is a very telling statistic.
In addition to the debate on extended schools, Dominic Bradley spoke about the bid for additional funding in this in-year monitoring round. It would be wrong to pre-empt the Executive’s consideration of June monitoring, but all Departments face significant pressures. One such pressure is equal pay, which the outgoing Minister of Finance and Personnel was keen to sort out. I concur with his determination to deal with that under a devolved Administration. The Education Minister’s spending performance in 2007-08 suggests that she has plenty of capacity to deal with extended schools provision. Mr Hamilton and several other Members made that point, and I endorse their valid comments.
I, and the entire Executive, want to deal with that issue. Every party expressed significant concern about extended schools and after-school clubs. We need to get that sorted out very soon.
I concur with Dolores Kelly about the pressure on children in schools. Those of us who sat the 11-plus, or indeed any exam, throughout our school lives forgot about it once it was finished. That is no longer the case; children are under incredible pressure in school. We must assess how much pressure we put on our children and, indeed, what society demands of them.
Mark Durkan and Dolores Kelly talked about the ring-fencing of money in the children’s fund. All the funding that was previously allocated to ring-fenced areas has now been allocated to Departments. However — as Mrs Kelly pointed out — that reallocation has not been ring-fenced. Each Minister must prioritise funding in the context of all the issues that they face. In an intervention during Mr Hamilton’s speech, Mr Durkan suggested that the junior Ministers should take up the issue. However, it is a departmental issue because the Departments have been given the money.
Mr Beggs mentioned efficiency savings versus cuts. Dr Farry also commented that the public view efficiency savings merely as cuts. Departments should achieve progress on savings delivery by improving efficiency rather than simply by cutting services. Departments should not cut front-line services in an attempt to meet the 3% efficiency targets. Reductions in services are often perceived as cuts when it is simply a scaling back of provision to its appropriate level.
Sammy Wilson spoke at length about over-provision in the schools estate. In particular, he talked about the development of the integrated and Irish-medium sectors and the additional pressures of surplus places. I thank Mr Ford for his intervention, which provided the House with some clarity on integrated schools. A debate on the integrated education matters that he discussed would provide the best way forward.
Mr O’Loan and Dr Farry spoke about the Budget’s over-reliance on efficiency savings. It is right that public services are delivered as efficiently as possible; therefore, the Executive have asked each Minister to deliver annual efficiency savings of 3%. In its efficiency delivery plan, each Department has published details of how those savings are to be delivered. The Executive are clear that the focus is on efficiency rather than on cuts or service reductions.
Mr O’Loan and Mr Gallagher spoke about water and sewerage services. Mr Gallagher mentioned, in particular, clarification on bills. As I said in my introduction, I am sure that the Minister for Regional Development will follow up this debate by providing clarification on such matters. As Mr Gallagher and Mr O’Loan know, the independent water review panel concluded that the contribution from the regional rate is not sufficient to deliver water and sewerage services in the long term.
The Executive, during a meeting on 8 October 2007, agreed unanimously to introduce additional revenue streams to pay for water and sewerage services; that householders should provide a greater contribution; and that charging would commence in April 2009.
The Executive also agreed that no one should have to pay twice for water, giving full recognition to householder contributions towards water and sewerage services from the domestic regional rate. The Department for Regional Development has submitted a paper to the Executive outlining the proposed charging methodology, and the Minister is seeking the Executive’s agreement to those proposals: that is where the matter sits currently.
Mr O’Loan and Dr Farry spoke about an independent environmental protection agency, and undoubtedly Mr O’Loan would have given us more had time allowed. I want to say to Mr O’Loan that environmental regulation is very important to me — too important to be dealt with by an unelected body. The financial cost of establishing that body is an issue, but it is not the only issue. I listened very carefully to what he had to say about the article in the ‘Sunday Independent’; it is not a periodical that I read, but I take his word for what is in the article.
Mr O’Loan stated that it is accountability and not the size of the budget that is an important part of management structures. I find it strange, therefore, that he would then go on to argue that we need an independent environmental protection agency to deal with regulatory issues for the 1·7 million people in Northern Ireland. The new Northern Ireland environment agency will use effective and proportionate regulation to assist legitimate businesses to comply with the law, and enforce sanctions against environmental crime.
I think it was Mr Ford who asked about opportunity costs relating to environmental protection; he and Dr Farry have acknowledged that just because one has an independent environmental protection agency, that does not automatically mean that European infractions will stop. That being the case, why, in Northern Ireland, can we not have an effective way of dealing with those issues that is within Government and within an accountability mechanism? I have yet to hear an argument as to why an independent environmental protection agency is the panacea for all of the environmental wrongs in society.
As I said in my speech when launching the Northern Ireland environment agency — I cannot remember what date it was; it was some time ago — if I am proved wrong, there will be a review in three years time that will examine all the options again, including the option for an independent environmental protection agency. I am confident that the new Northern Ireland environment agency will be able to deal with those issues and that the agency will be made all the more stronger by the fact that it can, and will, be scrutinsed by the Committee for the Environment and indeed by the House.
Dr Farry mentioned the cost of division, and he is correct; there are additional costs arising from divisions within society in Northern Ireland. I know that he will accept that the levels of savings that can be realised in the short to medium term are rather modest. I know that he is — as ever — looking to the future. Executive Ministers will need to consider the steps that they can take to reduce unnecessary costs, which inevitably reduce the standard of public service provided to the people of Northern Ireland.
The incoming Minister of Finance and Personnel will examine the paper that Dr Farry is preparing — and we are all looking forward to that paper because it has been some time in the making. I understand that the paper was promised in January, but I am sure that it will be very good when it lands with the new Minister.
Dr Farry mentioned funding for the arts and creative industries, which do make an important contribution to the economy of Northern Ireland as well as to social well-being. However, it is important to recognise that spending on culture and arts in Northern Ireland is broadly comparable with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is important, because the figures are sometimes misquoted. It was recognised in the Budget, when additional funding was allocated to DCAL to address concerns expressed about arts, sports and library funding that were raised during the public consultation on the draft Budget. People sometimes say that the consultations that take place in relation to draft Government documents do not really mean anything and are not taken into account. However, that was a clear example of Government reacting to the public consultation.
In addition, DCAL has secured £5 million over the next three years to establish a creative industries seed-fund to support business enterprise in the creative industries sector. That is a competitive fund that will provide creative entrepreneurs with assistance on business planning, marketing, advice on access to venture capital, and intellectual property issues, as well as start-up finance.
Dr Farry also made mention of Varney II, and the size of the public sector. In his second report, David Varney endorsed the Executive’s focus on economic development. The Executive and the Assembly need to seriously consider Varney’s recommendations in the light of our commitments to improve productivity. That will help to address the issue of the relative size of our public sector, but it must be clear that that matter concerns the relevant size of both the public and private sectors. The key aim must be to grow the private sector, rather than to shrink the public sector.
Dr Farry also stated that the health budget was not big enough. As he is aware, the 2008-09 health budget includes a resource budget of £4·139 billion, and a gross capital budget of £262 million. That totals £4·345 billion, which is approximately 48% of the Northern Ireland Budget level — the highest level on record. As the Finance Minster has stated, it is not just the size of a Budget that is important, but how it is used and managed to deliver effective high-quality services.
The article that Mr O’Loan quoted concerned accountability mechanisms and how the Budget should be used in the most effective way. The allocation to the Department of Health, along with the package of measures to provide greater financial flexibility will enable that Department to cover its very substantial cost pressures, to pay for drug costs, as well as delivering significant service improvements in 2008-2009. The latest figures show that Northern Ireland continues to spend more per head on health and social care than England.
Sammy Wilson then referred to the differential between primary and post-primary funding — an issue that he has raised on many occasions. The key driver of funding, the age-weighted pupil unit weightings, are higher for post-primary pupils because the nature of the post-primary curriculum, its mode of delivery and the extensive support arrangements — such as staffing, equipment and resource materials — are quite different from that of the primary sector. It is more expensive in the main. I know that the Minster of Education is making provision for an increase in primary pupil weighting, with a view to progressively increasing the relative funding. I know that the Chairperson of that Committee will be glad to see that happening.
It is important that we ensure that there are no inefficiencies that could distort funding levels. Jennifer McCann mentioned the level of underspends in the various Departments, and I agree with her that Departments must and can do better in relation to their departmental underspends — including my own. High levels of underspend are not simply a financial nicety, but have real impacts on the level and standard of services provided to the public.
My colleague, the outgoing Finance Minister, has raised that matter on a number of occasions. In the House last week, he stated that the time had come to consider the introduction of targets and sanctions at the organisational and personal level. Ms McCann also raised the issue of social problems, and the broader concern of the need to them, in particular the increasing costs facing all our households.
Although the Executive’s key priority to grow the economy will address many of those issues, it is important that Ministers seek to improve all aspects of people’s lives in Northern Ireland. Mr Durkan made mention of cross-departmental funds, and reflected on the old Executive programme funds. Although that appeared to work, there was a level of underspend in those Executive programme funds. It was considered that making those funds available to the Departments would cut out the bureaucracy that is associated with them.
Mrs Kelly made the point that there were pros and cons in respect of those funds, and that is why it was felt that that those should be mainstreamed for the sake of efficiency. That is why they were mainstreamed.
Mr O’Dowd spoke about tax-varying powers. He felt that there was a need to do away with the economic over-dependence on our national Parliament.
Mr O’Dowd was, of course, engaged in distraction politics. Before he rose to speak, there was much debate about the education issue, so he decided to move us on to the issue of tax-varying powers. Tax is a double-edged sword. Raising taxes would damage the local economy’s competitiveness, and cutting them would have to be financed by the Executive under the Azores ruling. The Varney Review II confirmed that the local economy’s future is in the hands of the Executive, and we must maximise the opportunities afforded to us as part of the United Kingdom economy.
Mr O’Dowd also made comments on inefficiencies in the education and library boards and the amount of money that they return. However, the education and library boards are not just about money; accountability also matters, and I have used that term throughout the debate. We look forward to keeping our education authorities democratic; that done, we can consider proposals in that sector.
I apologise to Mr Maginness for not being in the Chamber when he was speaking. He raised the issue of asset disposal and said that predicating the Budget on asset disposals was a risky strategy. Asset disposals represent the release of funds that are tied up, unused or underutilised. When they are sold, the associated holding cost is released. The fact that market values have changed is relevant, but it does not suggest that the strategy is flawed. Fundamentally, the Executive are in the business of public-service provision, not property speculation — perhaps that is just as well. That does not mean, however, that the way in which we deal with those issues is flawed.
Mr Maginness also spoke of the £170 million underspend as lost to the Executive. The Member is right to highlight the need for Departments to reduce the level of underspend, however, I remind him that the money is not lost to the Executive, and is available for public services in the future.
Mr Maginness also suggested that DFP must get its act together and sort out those issues. Talking about the Executive as though they were not a four-party mandatory coalition is a trait of the SDLP. Dominic Bradley said that the Executive were lacking in leadership and vision, despite the fact that the Executive have an SDLP member. Declan O’Loan told us that the SDLP shows no ambiguity in relation to the Budget and that his party is united in its stance on it. However, the SDLP Minister voted for the Budget. That semi-detached attitude to the Executive does no one any good.
The SDLP must recognise that the Executive are a four-party mandatory coalition, and it must play its part in supporting the decisions, often difficult, taken by the Executive. I remind that party that the Budget was agreed unanimously by all members of the Executive. The key task for all Ministers is to get on with delivery, improve public services and avoid repetition of the underspend that we saw this year, not to fight continually over the Budget figures.
David Ford spoke about mental health. I understand that the Health Minister intends to allocate an additional £19 million in 2008-09 to mental health and learning disability services. He and the rest of the Executive hope that that will go a long way towards implementing the recommendations of the Bamford Review.
David Ford and Stephen Farry talked about overinvestment in the roads infrastructure. However, there are several arguments for putting more money into that infrastructure: it relieves congestion and improves journey times; it improves the quality of life and provides development opportunities; it balances the development of Northern Ireland by improving access to the north-west and south-west; and — importantly, from the point of view of my Department — it improves road safety, which I know is dear to Mr Ford’s heart.
The allocation of some £56·5 million to transport will allow for continued capital investment in both bus and rail services. That will enable Translink to continue funding its bus-replacement programme, and NI Railways to continue its programme of significant capital works. It will also enable the commencement of preparatory work on the proposed rapid-transit line in greater Belfast.
There is no need to spend substantial amounts of money on sustainable transport, and I know that the Member will agree with that. There are more innovative ways to bring sustainable transport into this country, such as the creation of cycle lanes, which do not cost much money.
Mr Gallagher raised the final point on the excess vote for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Indeed, Mr Gallagher is probably the only Member who raised that issue today. In 2006-07, the Department incurred an excess vote on its superannuation scheme accounts, because it failed to take account of a reduction in its creditors. That was not highlighted in 2006-07 as additional cash, and it was taken from the departmental vote instead of the Consolidated Fund. I understand from the Department that it has undertaken a commitment to prevent a recurrence, including separate banking arrangements being set up this month for the superannuation vote.
I have tried to cover all Members’ comments. However, if I have failed to do so, departmental officials will respond to each Member concerned when they have read the Hansard report. I thank all Members who contributed to the debate. In a democracy, it is important to hear the views of elected public representatives and to debate issues fully. Therefore, I ask all Members to support the motions.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £7,184,270,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 and that resources, not exceeding £8,474,916,000 be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 as summarized for each Department or other public body in Columns 3(b) and 3(a) of Table 1.3 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Estimates 2008-2009 that was laid before the Assembly on 30 May 2008.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £7,224,593.19 be granted out of the Consolidated Fund for or towards defraying the charges for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety – Health and Personal Social Services Superannuation, for the year ending 31 March 2007 as summarized in Part II of the Statement of Excess document that was laid before the Assembly on 30 May 2008. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster).]
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to introduce the Budget (No. 2) Bill [NIA 18/07], which is a Bill to authorise the issue out of the Consolidated Fund of certain sums for the service of the year ending 31 March 2009; to appropriate those sums for specified purposes; to authorise the Department of Finance and Personnel to borrow on the credit of the appropriated sums; to authorise the use for the public service of certain resources (including accruing resources) for the year ending 31 March 2009; to authorise the issue out of the Consolidated Fund of an excess cash sum for the service of the year ending 31 March 2007; and to repeal certain spent provisions.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I have received written notification from the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, confirming that the Committee is satisfied that, in accordance with Standing Order 40(2), there has been appropriate consultation with the Committee on the public expenditure proposals contained in the Bill. Therefore, the Committee is content that the Bill can proceed via accelerated passage. The Second Stage of the Bill will be brought before the House tomorrow, Tuesday 10 June 2008.
Further Consideration Stage
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that, under Standing Order 35(2), the Further Consideration Stage of a Bill is restricted to debating any further amendments tabled to the Bill. As no amendments have been tabled, there will be no opportunity today to discuss the Mesothelioma etc., Bill. Members will, however, be able to have a full debate during the Bill’s Final Stage. The Further Consideration Stage of the Bill is, therefore, concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Adjourned at 6.06 pm.