Official Report: Monday 09 February 2015

The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Committee Business

Mr Speaker: As with similar motions, the motion on Committee membership will be treated as a business motion and there will be no debate.


That Mr Roy Beggs replace Mr Michael Copeland as a member of the Committee for Social Development; and that Mr Robin Swann replace Mr Roy Beggs as a member of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. — [Mr Swann.]

Executive Committee Business

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 9 February 2015.

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) be suspended for 9 February 2015.

Mr Speaker: As usual, there will be a single debate on the motions. One amendment has been selected for debate regarding the Supply resolution for the 2015-16 Vote on Account and is published on the Marshalled List. As a valid of petition of concern was presented on Friday 6 February in relation to the amendment, the vote on the amendment will be on a cross-community basis. I shall call the Minister to move the first motion, which is on the 2014-15 spring Supplementary Estimates. The debate on all three motions and the amendment will then begin. When all those who wish to speak have done so, or when the time limit has been reached, I shall put the Question on the first motion.

The second motion, which is the 2015-16 Vote on Account, will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move it. The amendment will then be read into the record, and I will call Mr Allister to move it. The Question will then be put on the amendment followed by the Question on the second motion. After the Question is put on the second motion, the third motion, which is the 2015-16 Main Estimate, will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion.

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to four hours and 30 minutes for the debate. The Minister will have up to 60 minutes to allocate at his discretion between proposing and winding. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have 10 minutes. If that is clear, I shall proceed.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Could I have clarification about the validity of a petition of concern? Surely, at the point at which the signatories apply their name, they should know that which they are petitioning. In this case, the petition that was lodged contains your name, Mr Speaker, Tippexed out, which suggests that it came out of the bottom of a drawer and was prepared long before the motion that it is petitioning ever came into existence. How, therefore, could a petition of concern be valid if, when the signatories applied their signatures, they did not know that which they were petitioning?

Mr Speaker: The Member will understand the process as well as anyone in the House. I, as Speaker, have to judge whether the petition of concern is valid. I seek to determine whether the names of those who have signed that petition are valid and whether it was submitted in the appropriate fashion. That is as far as I intend to go with the point that you made. You have succeeded in putting it on the record, and I suspect that you will be satisfied with that.

That this Assembly approves that a total sum, not exceeding £15,646,075,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2015 and that total resources, not exceeding £17,051,879,000, be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2015 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 3(c) and 2(c) of table 1 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Spring Supplementary Estimates 2014-15 that was laid before the Assembly on 2 February 2015.

The following motions stood in the Order Paper:

That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £7,075,640,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund on account for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 and that resources, not exceeding £7,742,283,000, be authorised, on account, for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 4 and 6 of table 1 in the Vote on Account 2015-16 document that was laid before the Assembly on 2 February 2015. — [Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

That this Assembly authorises resources, not exceeding £50,000, for use by the Department of Justice Northern Ireland Judicial Pensions Scheme for the year ending 31 March 2016, for the purposes specified in column 1 of the 2015-16 Main Estimate document that was laid before the Assembly on 2 February 2015. — [Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

The Supply resolution debate is a critical step in the legislative process that governs our finances. The debate commencing today primarily covers the final spending plans for the 2014-15 financial year, but it also covers the first few months of 2015-16 and the 2015-16 Main Estimate for the new judiciary pension scheme. Today, I am tabling three Supply motions for debate. Through the first motion, I seek the Assembly's legislative approval of the Executive's final spending plans for 2014-15. As Members will be aware, these final spending plans are detailed in the spring Supplementary Estimates. The second motion requests interim legislative cover for resources and funding for the first few months of 2015-16 in the form of a Vote on Account. The third motion seeks legislative cover to spend in respect of the new judicial pension scheme that will come into effect on 1 April 2015.

I request the levels of Supply set out in the motions 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 amounts that I now ask the Assembly to vote in Supply for 2014-15 are substantial: some £15·6 billion in cash, £17·1 billion of resources and £2·4 billion of accruing resources to be used by Departments and other public bodies in Northern Ireland.

As I mentioned, the first Supply motion relates to the spring Supplementary Estimates, which reflect all in-year changes made since the Main Estimates were approved by the Assembly last June. That includes any funding surrendered by Departments, allocations received or other technical transfers of funding processed through the three monitoring rounds in this financial year. They reflect the departmental expenditure limit (DEL) changes agreed by the Executive at the June, October and January monitoring rounds, and the annually managed expenditure (AME) funding agreed by the Treasury since the approval of the 2014-15 Main Estimates. Therefore, this legislation process simply ratifies Budgets previously agreed by the Executive.

Before going into the detail of the 2014-15 public expenditure transactions, I think that this is an opportune time to reflect on what has been an incredibly challenging year. The public expenditure environment that the Executive and Assembly had to face was immensely difficult, and there were times when the scale of the challenges facing us threatened to unhinge the entire Executive. The reasons for the very tight public expenditure position have been well documented. It was a combination of a reduction in our spending power since 2010 of more than £1 billion, increasing pressure on our public services, such as health, and the impasse over welfare reform. With the Stormont House Agreement, we now have a basis to move forward in respect of both political agreement and public finances. Specifically, the agreement on welfare reform has put the Executive's finances back on a long-term sustainable footing. The Executive’s publication of a 2015-16 Budget last month means that we can look ahead with a key cornerstone in place to underpin the agreement.

The Stormont House Agreement also paved the way for the Assembly to take on new powers to vary our rate of corporation tax. What we have achieved over the last few months should, therefore, not be underestimated. That said, it is well known that it has been a bumpy road. I am still frustrated that it took so long to get agreement to implement welfare reform. The UK Government still insist on deducting funding from our Budget for the non-implementation of welfare reform to date. In this financial year alone, that deduction amounted to £87 million, which could otherwise have been used to deliver public services in Northern Ireland . With the Stormont House Agreement, we were able to negotiate additional flexibility to address the issue of welfare reform deductions, and I am pleased that we now have a mechanism to deal with that, but we should not forget that failure to proceed earlier on welfare reform has cost us £100 million in lost investment in public services.

I now want to look ahead with renewed focus and optimism to ensure that we continue to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that everyone else in the Chamber shares that vision.

Let me return to the detail of the 2014-15 in-year changes, which is the focus of today’s debate. We began the 2014-15 financial year with an overcommitment of £76·7 million on the resource side and £51·6 million on the capital side. That is normal budget management practice and was based on the expectation that the Executive would be able to more than recoup those amounts through reduced requirements being surrendered in the monitoring rounds. In any other year, that approach would have been perfectly logical, as it was when the Executive agreed their 2011-15 Budget in 2010. However, in terms of the resource budget, this year was not business as usual.

As I said, in the June monitoring round, we were facing a critical financial position that required in-year resource reductions to be imposed on Departments. As Members will recall, the Executive agreed reductions to departmental resource DEL of 4·4% across the June and October monitoring rounds. That impacted all Departments, with the exception of the Departments of Health and Education and a number of minor public bodies. In fact, the total amount of departmental reductions applied in this year was £164·6 million.

So far, my understanding is that the Departments are on target to deliver those savings, perhaps with the exception of the Department for Regional Development, which bid for additional resource funding in the January monitoring round. I reiterate the critical importance of all Ministers adhering to their budget control totals and, indeed, the resource and cash limits included in the spring Supplementary Estimates.

Despite the in-year reductions applied to departmental resource budgets, some reduced requirements were still surrendered through the monitoring rounds. On the non-ring-fenced resource side, that amounted to £36·1 million. As would be expected, given the in-year reductions, that was significantly less than the £90·7 million surrendered last year.

If we take funding to manage the overcommitment, technical adjustments and other issues into account, the Executive balanced the in-year reductions with allocations of some £206·8 million non-ring-fenced resource during 2014-15. A considerable proportion of that — £80 million — went to the Department of Health to ensure continuation of critical front-line health services. Funding was also allocated to key Executive commitments, including local government reform, Invest NI business support and the historical institutional abuse inquiry. Additional resource funding was also provided to the Department of Justice for the PSNI and legal aid pressures.

On the capital side, the Departments surrendered some £331·1 million through the in-year monitoring rounds. Members should note that that included some £132·8 million identified in the Executive’s capital reallocation exercise in 2013, and that was not available for reallocation in this year. Some of the largest reductions included £119·5 million from the Department for Regional Development in respect of the A5 road scheme and £63·1 million from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in relation to its regional stadia programme.

If we take the opening position at the start of the year, technical adjustments and other issues into account, capital allocations to Departments amounted to some £226·9 million in 2014-15. That included £54·5 million to the Department for Social Development, primarily for the co-ownership scheme, social housing development and urban regeneration projects. There was also £48·3 million for the Department for Regional Development to fund the structural maintenance of roads and other capital works. There was also an allocation of £48·5 million financial transactions capital towards the University of Ulster's greater Belfast development scheme.

Those were just some of the departmental expenditure limit allocations in the monitoring rounds. However, the 2014-15 spring Supplementary Estimates also include some £3 billion of annually managed expenditure for social security benefits.

This funding goes a long way to protect those most in need and provides mainly for expenditure on disability benefits, pension support, employment and support allowance, jobseeker's allowance, income support and housing benefit.

12.15 pm

Before leaving the detail of the spring Supplementary Estimates, I would like to highlight some limited headroom that has been built into the position over and above the January monitoring position. Headroom has been included for the Department for Social Development and the Department for Regional Development to ensure that, should other Departments have capital underspends before the end of the financial year, there is sufficient legislative cover to allow unspent capital to be redirected to these Departments. This will help the Executive to maximise capital expenditure and should ensure that no capital funding is lost to Northern Ireland under the Budget exchange scheme. I must emphasise that this headroom has been included on the condition that it must only be used if capital funding becomes available before the end of the financial year. I hope that Members will endorse these actions in respect of headroom and share my desire to avoid scarce capital funding being surrendered to the Treasury at the year-end.

Turning from the 2014-15 financial year and looking ahead to 2015-16, the second motion seeks approval of a cash and resource Vote on Account to ensure the continuation of services into the next financial year. The amounts of cash and resources proposed are an advance of around 45% of the final 2014-15 provision and have no direct correlation to the Budget allocations for 2015-16. This advance is simply necessary to enable services to continue into 2015-16 until the Main Estimates are presented to the Assembly for approval in June.

The final motion is the Main Estimate for the 2015-16 judicial pensions scheme. Legislation is currently under way to establish a new pension scheme for the devolved judiciary to take effect from 1 April this year. Since authority to spend in relation to this scheme must be in place before 1 April, the third motion introduces the 2015-16 Main Estimate for this new pension scheme.

I commend to Members the 2014-15 spring Supplementary Estimates, the 2015-16 Vote on Account, the 2015-16 judicial pensions scheme Main Estimate and the related Supply motions. At the end of today’s debate, I will endeavour to deal with the issues raised by Members.

Mr Allister: I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after "Assembly approves" and insert

"that a sum, not exceeding £7,075,390,000, reflecting a reduction in the cash grant from OFMDFM to the Equality Commission, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund on account for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 and that resources, not exceeding £7,742,033,000, reflecting a reduction in the cash grant from OFMDFM to the Equality Commission, be authorised, on account, for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 4 and 6 of table 1 in the Vote on Account 2015-16 document that was laid before the Assembly on 2 February 2015.".

I will speak primarily to the subject matter of the amendment. Contrary to what I suspect some will allege, this amendment is not an assault on the existence of the Equality Commission. If it were, then, of course, the attempt to reduce its budget would be much more radical, because it has a budget of something approaching £6·5 million. This amendment, in a very proportionate way and by a relatively modest amount, seeks to afford MLAs an opportunity to rebuke the Equality Commission for its anti-Christian agenda.

The Equality Commission is publicly funded. Indeed, it requires the votes of today on the two resolutions to provide it with the funding that it spends. It is, effectively, living off and spending public money as an arm's-length body of OFMDFM, and its money comes by that route: through OFMDFM. Therefore, it is right that an elected Assembly should take an opportunity such as the Estimates debate to lay down markers in respect of the public performance of such a body.

This amendment seeks to do that in that measured way, to oppose and expose its adventurist agenda to try to suppress freedom of conscience in the area of human rights law. However you look at its recent actions, it is hard to escape the conclusion that part of this adventurist agenda is to push the boundaries of equality law to the point that it is beyond disputation that what they call "gay rights" trumps freedom of conscience. They utterly overwhelm them to the point that, no matter what religious freedom one might be supposed to have and no matter what freedom of conscience one might be supposed to have, there are circumstances, such as those that are manifesting themselves in current litigation, in which the Equality Commission wishes to demonstrate and to put beyond doubt that gay rights trump the Christian right to freedom of conscience. That is wrong, which is why, I believe, the opportunity is appropriate and timely to rebuke the mischievous madness of the Equality Commission in this regard.

Mr Givan: I thank the Member for giving way. The commentary is around gay rights trumping the rights of conscience and Christians in our society, but is it not the case that for Ashers bakery the sexual orientation of the customer was irrelevant? It was the message that the bakery was being asked to produce that was the problem. Therefore, had a heterosexual male asked for a cake with that message, it would have denied the service to that individual as well, because it was the message as opposed to the messenger that there was an issue with.

Mr Speaker: I invite the Member to return to the subject of the debate. I was giving you some scope — I am sure you will appreciate that — but it is time to discuss the business of today. The intervention has required me to make that clear. I was worried that we might head off in a different direction on a different debate for a different occasion. Today, we are discussing the budgetary measures, and I invite the Member to concentrate on that in his remaining time.

Mr Allister: I agree entirely with the comments made in the intervention. The purpose of the amendment is to put down a marker to the Equality Commission on its spend of public money and show it that there are those in this House who object to its actions and want to take the opportunity, I hope, to disapprove in a tangible way, such as by voting for the amendment, to demonstrate that.

It strikes me that the Equality Commission must have too much money if it can afford to go on the adventurous persecution that it is involved in. Of course, the Equality Commission is very bloated with its level of public support: it has 130 staff. We run the Policing Board, apparently, with 47 staff, but the Equality Commission needs 130. The Victims and Survivors Service has 136; the Equality Commission has 130.

When we come to the Equality Commission, we discover the astounding fact that it cannot even provide for equality in its own house. According to its last annual report, of its 130 staff, 66% are from a Roman Catholic background and 33% are from a Protestant background. Sixty-five per cent are from a female background, but 34% are male. Surely within the Equality Commission we should expect wholly transparent manifestations of equality. Yet, we find that things are of that nature.

My message to the Equality Commission through this amendment is very straightforward. Take the beam out of your own eye in terms of equality before you start worrying about the adventurous matters that you are meddling in.

I trust that the House will take the opportunity to mark the Equality Commission's card in this matter. It is a matter of regret to me that the republican front in this House has sought to block expression through a petition of concern, but there still will be an opportunity for people to show their tangible disapproval.

I trust that many will take that opportunity today and send the message that needs to be sent to the Equality Commission.

Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Senior DFP officials briefed the Committee for Finance and Personnel in relation to the spring Supplementary Estimates (SSE) and Vote on Account, and the Committee approved accelerated passage for the Budget Bill, which will be introduced by the Minister later today. That decision was on the basis that there had been appropriate consultation with the Committee as provided for by Standing Order 42(2), and I wrote to the Speaker to provide confirmation of that.

As was pointed out, the SSE reflect the changes that were made to the opening Budget position for 2014-15 as a result of the monitoring rounds in June, October and January. Additionally, the Department explained to the Committee that headroom was built into the spring Supplementary Estimates to give the Executive ability to spend any last-minute underspends on priority areas to ensure that no resources are lost to the Treasury under the Budget exchange scheme. That relates to the Department for Social Development and Department for Regional Development in particular.

During the evidence session, the Committee received helpful clarification from officials on a number of significant allocations, easements and technical adjustments that occurred during the in-year monitoring round process. The officials ran through the detail of those when explaining the reconciliation of the spring Supplementary Estimates with the Main Estimates of Departments, which were approved in the Assembly last summer.

That reconciliation exercise highlighted the scale of the movement of moneys across Departments during the year. From a quick calculation, the total resource allocations amounted to £239 million, while total capital allocations amounted to almost £227 million. That was against total easements of almost £78 million in resource and £331 million in capital. In some instances, the figures were substantial, in particular for Health, Social Development and Regional Development.

The Committee for Finance and Personnel undertook an active role in scrutinising the quarterly monitoring rounds at a strategic and departmental level throughout the 2014-15 financial year and received timely briefings on the Department's position prior to each monitoring round.

As regards its own expenditure, the Department of Finance and Personnel reported easements totalling £1·6 million in resource. In allocations, the Department received £5·8 million resource and £29·4 million capital, primarily in relation to the asset management strategy.

In the Committee's previous debate on its report into flexible working, a key issue in relation to office accommodation savings was that we do not yet have firm figures from the Department for the potential savings or even a plan setting out when and how those savings will be achieved. The Committee discovered that only 20% of Civil Service office space met workspace utilisation targets and traditional office space was typically occupied for only 45% of the time. Given the scope for significant savings in this area in 2015-16 and beyond, I expect the Committee will wish to closely monitor progress in this area.

Arising from last week's evidence from the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Committee agreed that in its future scrutiny it would be beneficial if, in advance of the Committee receiving an oral briefing and of the related Supply resolution debates, the Department provided the more-detailed information explaining the changes in departmental positions from the opening position to the Estimates. That would ensure that the Finance Committee and other Statutory Committees had a more detailed understanding of the changes ahead of debates. I look forward to the Department's response in that regard.

I turn now to the motion relating to the Vote on Account for 2015-16. That is a practical measure that provides interim resources at approximately 45% of the 2014-15 provision. That enables Departments, as the Minister said, to ensure that public services continue during the early part of the financial year until the Main Estimates for 2015-16 and the associated Budget Bill are debated by the Assembly before the summer.

12.30 pm

I will now speak from my party's position. I turn first to Mr Allister's amendment. The amendment is juvenile and petty. The Member for North Antrim does not like a decision that the Equality Commission has made, so he wants us to just take its money away. This is a Budget debate. It is a serious debate for the House. We should not be led into any diversionary debates that, as the Speaker has already said, belong elsewhere. You cannot have your cake and eat it. Have your 10 minutes and have your little argument, but, as far as we are concerned, this proposal is going nowhere. It is part of a homophobic front, to use the Member's terminology, because the whole argument that has arisen from the proposed legislation is about not only targeting the LGBT community and undermining the Equality Commission but opening a Pandora's box on equality. It is no surprise that the Member has brought this proposal forward.

I turn now to corporation tax. The Committee recently received evidence from Dr Graham Gudgin from the Centre for Economic Policy. He made a very interesting point, and one that we certainly agree with, that, in the calculations around corporation tax, there is a clear deficit. Most people expect that if, when the Assembly receives corporation tax powers, there were a decision to reduce the rate, then the secondary tax impacts of that — for instance, an increase in income tax revenues, an increase in VAT, and a reduction in welfare payments — should result in a benefit to the Department of Finance here in Belfast. We looked at Scotland, because the Smith Commission has rightly secured an assurance that any secondary tax impacts arising from fiscal powers used by the Scottish Government will make their way back to Edinburgh and to the Scottish Government. The Minister and the Executive need to seek an assurance that we do not get only the sting in the tail of corporation tax in terms of the cost, the £300 million projections, that have been put out there. If this is going to result in significant revenues going to the Treasury in London, those should be taken off the cost of corporation tax.

We do not know what is going to happen in Westminster over the next few months. However, there is every possibility that Scotland and the SNP, which wants to see corporation tax powers in Edinburgh, will get a better deal on corporation tax. It is important that we ensure that we get a good deal and a complete deal on corporation tax and that the Treasury does not pull a fly one with the Executive. A lot of these situations arise for a very simple reason: the fact that we do not have adequate detail on revenues and taxes. The Department of Finance and Personnel is often left in the position where the Treasury can wilfully pull the wool over its eyes whether it likes it or not. This is not an ideal position and does not represent good governance as far as the people we represent are concerned. It will lead to situations where we are not getting an appropriate and fair deal when it comes to any dealings with the Treasury.

In the DEL budget contained in the document before us today, there is reference to the European Social Fund (ESF). There is a lot of concern out there at the moment. I recently met a number of organisations in my own constituency to talk about how the ESF payments and the ESF process have been dealt with. There is a sense that community-based groups have been cut out of this process. There have been questionable changes made to the criteria for level 1 and level 2 qualifications. It is important that, over the next financial year, the Minister for Employment and Learning looks after not only his own Department but those in the community and voluntary sector who, in a lot of instances, deliver better outcomes and better results on the community line.

Finally, a lot of money has gone to Health over the past year for front-line support. That will continue with the £200 million uplift in 2015-16, but I hope that the Health Minister will learn —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is almost up.

Mr McKay: — that any decisions he makes will have to be based on protecting front-line services, like those at Dalriada, and that they will also need to be rural proofed in the year ahead.

Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I am pleased to be able to speak on behalf of the Committee for Justice, which has obviously regularly scrutinised through written and oral briefings the Department of Justice's budget, including the delivery of savings plans, as well as pressures and easements, which are identified in monitoring rounds. As everyone is now aware, it has been a particularly challenging time for the Department of Justice, given the in-year budget reductions arising from the October monitoring round and the ongoing pressures created in other parts of the Department, its agencies and non-departmental public bodies.

Primarily, the ongoing costs of legal aid are of particular concern. Last week, I was at a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, a document that many Members will understand is rooted in the foundation of parliamentary democracy and, indeed, the rule of law. Article 39 of the Magna Carta talks about access to justice, and I think that we are all aware of the importance of access to justice and a good legal system. At the same time, we also have to be cognisant that the cost of legal aid in Northern Ireland is rising, is continuing to do so and is, indeed, spiralling out of control.

Given the cost of legal aid and its overall impact on the Justice budget, I will talk about it first. As early as the June monitoring round, very large pressures were being highlighted as a result of the cost of legal aid, and the Department was looking for savings in other areas to enable it to allocate additional funding. Over the year, the Department allocated £35·5 million of additional funding to the legal aid budget, including £13·2 million of the £29 million additional funding that the Executive provided as part of the October monitoring round. That money could have been used — some would argue that it should have been used — to fund other areas, including policing pressures and other front-line pressures facing the Department during the latter part of the 2014-15 financial year. At the Committee meeting on 10 December 2014, departmental officials confirmed that all budget areas had taken cuts to fund the legal aid pressures.

The cost of legal aid is unsustainable, given the reduction in budget that the Department is facing in 2015-16 and the impact that that will have on the provision of front-line services, which I will return to shortly. When he appeared at the Justice Committee meeting on 28 January this year, the Minister of Justice indicated that the key risk to the Department living within its budget next year is legal aid spending and said that radical action is clearly required. The Minister is proposing a range of further reforms, including a short-term exceptional measure to assist in managing the pressures on an in-year basis. That would involve a strictly controlled levy on bills to be paid, based on the amount required to live within the budget. The Assembly will take that decision annually. The Committee has asked for further details on that. It has not seen the detailed proposals, but when it does, it will obviously scrutinise them to make sure that the action will result in the immediate reductions that the Minister claims. Such a reduction in the cost of legal aid will, therefore, provide the time needed for the implementation of a longer-term reform, which, I think, everyone in the House believes is absolutely necessary.

Turing to the PSNI budget, which accounts for over 60% of the overall Justice budget — indeed, it is in the range of being seven times more than any other area of DOJ spending — the Chief Constable clearly outlined the impact that the in-year reductions in the budget would have. They included a severe detrimental impact on police resilience and capacity, including a significant impact on community policing, combating serious crime, legacy investigations and police recruitment plans for police officers and staff. The additional funding from the Executive at the October monitoring round was welcome and provided some assistance to the Chief Constable when making difficult decisions on priorities to ensure that he lives within his budget for 2014-15. The extra £20 million provided in the final budget allocation specifically for the PSNI will also enable the Chief Constable to undertake a level of recruitment and to mitigate to some extent the impact on front-line services during 2015-16. Again, that is to be welcomed.

Given that the police budget receives the bulk of Justice funding, the Committee has emphasised the importance of ongoing scrutiny of all areas of its spend to identify further efficiencies and opportunities to avail itself of shared services. Whilst the PSNI has identified and implemented a wide range of efficiency measures and savings, the need for the Department and the Chief Constable to continue to work closely together is of particular importance in this climate of reducing budgets. The Committee will continue to keep an eye on this area of the budget.

One other pressure that has emerged recently relates to hearing-loss claims from prison officers. Whilst the scale of the claims is unlikely to be anywhere near as high as those for police officers, the Department needs to give consideration to the best approach to handling the claims, given the criticism that has been directed at the handling of the legal and medical costs for the police claims.

I turn now to the Vote on Account, which provides the initial funding for 2015-16. According to the Department of Justice, its aim, amongst other things, is to prevent crime and reduce the risk of reoffending. The Department has already faced substantial pressures in-year, resulting in a range of reductions in funding that have clearly affected the delivery of front-line services, not just by the PSNI, as I have already highlighted, but projects delivered by the voluntary and community sector to address offending behaviour. My colleague Mr Frew, who is sitting along the Benches from me, has raised on a number of occasions the Railway Street Drug, Arrest Referral and Harm Reduction Service in Ballymena. NIACRO has been mentioned as well, and, of course, the work of the Probation Board, including the monitoring of sexual and violent offenders who are living in the community.

The Minister will continue to have to prioritise funding during 2015-16, and the Committee has raised concerns regarding the adoption of an approach to cutting spending that does not include a cost-benefit analysis and an analysis of the likely impact on and cost to other areas of the criminal justice system. By reducing funding to projects that aim to prevent offending behaviour and rehabilitate offenders, not only will the Department reduce the likelihood of achieving its overall aims and objectives for the justice system but it is likely to increase costs for the PSNI, the Courts and Tribunals Service and, ultimately, the Prison Service. The Committee has asked the Minister of Justice to revisit some of the funding proposals, and, again, we will continue to monitor saving plans and related impacts to ensure that budget allocations are not based on a false economy.

When the Minister attended the Committee meeting on 28 January, the budget for the Prison Service was discussed. I raised concerns regarding staffing levels, the use of overtime to cover staff shortages, the number of lockdowns, particularly in Maghaberry, and whether adequate funding is being made available to maintain safety levels for prison officers and prisoners. This morning, I noticed a reply to an Assembly question that I had tabled. It puts this in very stark view over the past five years. In 2010, 63 members of the Prison Service left with no new officers recruited; in 2011, 47 prison officers left the service and none was recruited; in 2012, 257 members left with 140 recruited; in 2013, 323 left and 170 were recruited; in 2014, 104 members left and none was recruited; in 2015, up until the 23 January, nine members of the Prison Service have left with no new recruits. Whilst we acknowledge that many left under the voluntary exit scheme, it highlights that we are running short on the number of prison officers that we have. That will obviously have an impact on the running of our prisons. The Minister indicated that staffing arrangements will be considered and that emerging funding pressures will be considered as part of the monitoring rounds, but it is, as I said, an area of particular concern, particularly given recent events at Maghaberry prison. The Committee will no doubt wish to discuss the situation with the director general of the Prison Service when she next attends the Committee.

Finally, I wish to mention the Desertcreat community safety training college capital project. The Department has indicated that an allocation of up to £53 million has been provided for that in the next financial year, dependent on agreeing the drawdown of unspent funds from the Treasury. Given that the four-year period provided for the Department of Justice to carry forward underspends is due to come to an end on 31 March 2015, it would be helpful if the Minister could provide an update on the position regarding discussions with the Treasury in relation to the underspend and end-year flexibility arrangements.

I finish by saying that I support the 2014-15 spring Supplementary Estimates and the 2015-16 Vote on Account.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, as an deis cainte sa díospóireacht seo. Beidh mise ag díriú le linn m'óráide ar an tionchur a bhéas ag na moltaí seo ar rialtas áitiúil. Ní bheidh mé ag tabhairt tacaíochta don leasú ar an phríomh-rún, agus déarfaidh mé a thuilleadh faoi sin ar ball. At the outset, I want to say that we will not support Mr Allister's amendment. I will deal with that later. I want initially to outline the very challenging financial position that local government faces at a time when the sector is expected to deliver major reform.

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The reform of local government is one of the flagship commitments in the Executive's Programme for Government. The vision that the Executive set for local government is:

"a strong, dynamic local government creating communities that are vibrant, healthy, prosperous, safe, sustainable and have the needs of all citizens at their core."

A key element of local government reform is the transfer of a number of functions to local government. To ensure that that transfer was effective and sustainable and would not increase the burden on ratepayers, the Executive made a commitment that it would be rates-neutral at the point of transfer.

The Minister, Mr Durkan, is responsible for, among other things, planning, which is the largest single area of work that will transfer to councils in April. He has ensured that that commitment has been adhered to with respect to the costs that are associated with that function. That has meant excluding those costs from the effects of the substantial across-the-board reductions that have been applied to the Department's budget by the Executive, thereby creating even greater pressures on the remaining areas of DOE expenditure. However, not all Ministers have felt able to do that, which has left the new councils with the challenge of either having to find additional funding from within their budgets or to cut services to achieve savings from the outset. That has not fulfilled the collective commitment to local government on rates neutrality at the point of transfer. To compound the issue, the Executive's final Budget also applied significant reductions to the DOE baseline provision for a range of local government grant programmes.

Throughout the consultations that led to the draft Budget and the final Budget, the Minister pressed for grant programmes to be protected from across-the-board cuts and the amounts to be ring-fenced so that they could only be used to support local government at this time of great change for the sector. Unfortunately, the Minister's proposals were ignored, which left local councils in a position in which they did not have their funding protected at the point of transfer but, instead, face cuts to their central government funding at a time of significant upheaval.

There is particular concern about the implications of the final Budget on the rates support grant. Reductions to that grant will impact directly on those less well-off councils that have access to those grant payments to help make good the difference between their rates income and the money that they need to maintain parity of service provision with more wealthy councils. That would be a particularly unfair and unwelcome outcome at a time when councils are seeking to make the major organisational changes that are associated with local government reform and reorganisation. Indeed, whilst the additional £1·9 million allocation to the derating grant was welcome, it will not meet the expected pressure on that budget, which, even with that additional allocation, is anticipated to be in the region of £3 million.

Furthermore, a number of other grant programmes that were previously supported by DOE have been subject to across-the-board cuts in the final Budget, including grants that are provided by the Department to local government to carry out statutory obligations or important services on behalf of central government. Those include the emergency planning grant, which is used by councils to support their capacity to provide much-needed support to other agencies at times of emergencies, and we have all witnessed the valuable contribution that councils make in emergency situations, including localised flooding events.

Unfortunately, the decision to apply an arbitrary and substantial cut to what was already a relatively small grant sends the wrong message to the new councils about the value that the Executive place on their previous efforts in emergency situations.

In 2013, the Executive agreed to provide councils with a reform funding package of £17·8 million for 2013-15, with a further commitment of up to £30 million for rates convergence beyond 2015. Mr Speaker, as you will be aware, the £17·8 million commitment for 2013-15 covered only part of the bid for £38 million in costs, and local government has had to meet the balance. That has placed, as you would expect, significant pressure on councils to fund the shortfall of an estimated £20 million, during a time of challenging economic circumstances, in order to cover the costs of the work streams relating to reform that are inescapable and provide no cash-releasing benefit to the sector.

In addition, councils have identified a further £13 million of transition and transformation costs that will, potentially, be incurred over this and the next two financial years. That is adding to the financial pressures in local government created by the final Budget and the reductions in funding transferring with some functions. Those pressures would be difficult at any time, but, coming in the early years of operation of the new councils, the challenge is even greater. Some local government representatives have articulated the view that the Executive are less than committed to making local government reform work and are not providing councils with adequate resources to be able to fulfil the expectations that citizens have of the reform process. Indeed, they believe that the cumulative effect of all these cuts will be an increase in district rates or cuts to key services.

The Executive need to allocate an additional one-off sum to be paid to councils to mitigate the dual impacts of the one-off costs of reorganisation and the final Budget on Executive funding available for local government next year. In particular, the Executive need to allocate additional funding to support local government at this critical time: for example, £3 million to plug the gap in the derating grant for 2015-16; £2·77 million to restore the rate support grant to its current level of £18·32 million; and a contribution of a further £10 million towards the additional transition costs not covered by the Executive's local government reform funding package. Such sums would be allocated for the exclusive benefit of the new councils.

I do not think that it is any surprise that the SDLP will oppose the amendment proposed by Mr Allister, since we signed the petition of concern. I think that the amendment is a worrying interference in the work of the Equality Commission. The implication of it is that, if we disagree with the direction that the Equality Commission takes on a particular issue, we simply cut its budget. We should allow the Equality Commission to continue to do its legitimate work without such interference.

Mr Speaker, I will leave it at that. Go raibh míle maith agat, mar a dúirt mé cheana féin, as an deis cainte. Ní bheimid ag tacú leis an leasú ar an rún. As I said, we will not support the amendment.

Mr Cree: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the two Supply resolutions that are being debated together today.

As usual, the spring Supplementary Estimates contain a lot of figures, and I appreciate that it was no easy task to collate the information. It is three years since Mr Bradley, as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, brought a motion to the House that gave effect to approving the Committee's report on implementing a review of the financial process in Northern Ireland. The report was adopted and supported by all. It called on the then Minister of Finance and Personnel, in conjunction with relevant Executive colleagues, to implement the report's recommendations. It is a shame that nothing has moved on since then and that we are still labouring with a system that has long since passed its sell-by date. We will shortly enter the last year of the mandate of this Assembly, and I urge the Executive to press on with a proper system, despite the intransigence of the Education Minister.

The Finance Committee has taken evidence from departmental officials in the last few weeks. The Chairman has spoken about this, so I will not go into specifics on the work of the Committee in that regard. The Supply resolution seeks the Assembly's approval of the Executive's final spending plans for 2014-15, as detailed in the spring Supplementary Estimates. At this stage of the year, the Estimates have included all the changes from the monitoring rounds and are largely technical in nature. They require Assembly approval and are the final spending plans for this year.

For a variety of reasons, the Departments struggle throughout the year to spend their capital budgets. It seems prudent that some capital has been built into the Estimates by way of headroom to allow for flexibility at the year end. The return of capital to the Treasury would be most regrettable, bearing in mind the pressing needs in Northern Ireland at this time. DRD would receive £3 million for further investment for road structural maintenance, and DSD could receive £12 million for further investment in housing stock.

I also welcome DFP's condition that, should the spending not materialise, the Department's virement approval would not be given later to cover excess spending in other areas. The figures in the Supply resolution and the Budget Bill are the same as those in the corresponding spring Supplementary Estimates. They are both routine requirements at this stage of the financial year to obtain legislative Assembly authority for spending for the resources and associated cash requirements for the revised 2014-15 position. However, I ask the Minister for an assurance, which I am sure he will give me, that no unspent resources and capital, both conventional and financial transactions, will be returned to the Treasury this year.

The Vote on Account today is needed to ensure that the flow of cash continues to Departments, and it authorises spending of around 45% of the Budget, as the Minister confirmed. I have said before that it is not ideal to vote through an authorisation to spend almost half the Budget when we do not have the necessary details of that Budget to scrutinise. Until we have a better financial process, we have to use the existing system, poor as it is.

Mr Allister has tabled an amendment to change the Vote on Account so that the Equality Commission will have its budget reduced by £250,000, and this will presumably extend for the full year. I understand why the Equality Commission has been targeted as some of its decisions are, to say the least, bizarre. The Ashers bakery case is a classic example of Christian values being regarded by the commission as a bias, and the bakery has been prosecuted. On the other hand, I acknowledge that some of the commission's decisions are common sense — if sense be common — and the wearing of poppies was such a case. However, a petition of concern has been tabled so that the amendment will not be allowed, which, I have to say, is another decision that is a major concern to me. We hope to recognise that everyone in the Equality Commission is not guilty of illogical decisions, and many are hard-working. I believe that 10 members of staff were released only last week.

Another area that remains vague is the target for asset realisation. We started off the Budget with an expectation of £100 million for the four years. Perhaps the Minister will clarify what the current situation is. Anticipating a satisfactory response from him, I will be prepared to support the two resolutions today on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party.

I turn now to the Main Estimate for the Northern Ireland judicial pension scheme. It is proposed to have the scheme in place by 1 April this year, and the secondary legislation is under way. Authority to spend under the scheme must be in place before that date, and we have little choice other than to approve the expenditure provision. The Supply resolution has allowed resources not exceeding £50,000 for the year ending 31 March 2016.

1.00 pm

Mrs Cochrane: I should like to start by saying that Alliance opposed the 2015-16 Budget at the relevant time, both at the Executive and here in the Assembly, as we do not believe that it is sufficiently strategic. However, the Budget has now been agreed by a majority and we do not believe that we should seek to undermine it at this stage.

Alliance will, however, oppose Mr Allister's amendment to remove money allocated to the Equality Commission. It is clear from his comments that he tabled that not to talk about the Budget but simply as an opportunity to give his twopence worth about the fact that they have taken a case against Ashers bakery. Whether or not you agree with the Equality Commission taking that case, it does have an important role here in Northern Ireland, and to seek to punish it because you do not agree with it could undermine its important work on equality issues. Of course, there are other court cases that are taken with public funding, such as on the gay blood ban, and there is no suggestion from Mr Allister that funding should be removed from the Department of Health for that. Ultimately the courts will decide if they got it wrong, and lessons will hopefully be learned on all sides of each argument. Of course, Mr Speaker, as you said, today is not the day to debate that, nor the electioneering clause — sorry, the conscience clause — so I will move on.

Today's Supply resolution and Vote on Account motions authorise the use of that money by the various Northern Ireland Departments and public bodies. They do not, however, lay any groundwork for the radical reform that is required to deliver better outcomes for everyone in Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister how the proposed spending in front of us today will begin the process of making our public finances any more sustainable. We know that the forthcoming Budget for 2016-2020 is likely to see an even smaller block grant in the UK as the Government continue to cut public spending. At the same time, we have the potential added pressure of locally funding a lower level of corporation tax. Of course, we want the anticipated benefits of devolved corporation tax, but our Budget prioritises health and education at the expense of the economy. How we are going to be able to fund the change in corporation tax if we do not reform the most glaringly obvious area remains to be seen.

There is still no real challenge towards reforming inefficiencies in the areas of health and education. We know that those areas are inefficient, even just through high-level benchmarking of costs compared to other jurisdictions, yet the large degree of protection that they have been given creates less incentive for reform. As I said before, Alliance would not have given the degree of protection to the Department of Education, although we do support investing more resources directly into schools, but we think that that can be achieved by better use of the Department's budget in the first place. More money is already spent on education in Northern Ireland than in neighbouring jurisdictions, but less money is invested directly in the pupils. Part of that is due to the divided system that we have, as well as the administration.

The focus for the Department of Health also needs to be on reform, not just simply using resources to cover over gaps here and there in a sticking-plaster approach. The numerous reports that have already shown where there is significant scope for reform in the health sector now need to be driven forward through investing in rationalising the way services are provided and in further prevention measures. Reforms to the estate are also required, but there needs to be serious political commitment to do that. We cannot expect people to come forward with ideas for savings and then respond with political outrage because it has happened on our doorstep.

Tomorrow we will also debate welfare reform. Notwithstanding the fact that we have already lost millions of pounds in penalties due to the impasse, there will no doubt be a number of issues raised about what more can be done to support our most vulnerable and the money that is required to do that — things like funding an independent advice sector for those seeking to claim benefits, or the need for resources for skills development for those who are trying to move into work. We cannot fund things like that until we take the tough decisions needed for radical reform. That includes things like revenue raising and tackling the costs of division, for example, in our teacher training, an area where, when proposals are made to reform, the bigger parties retreat into their trenches and seek to continue segregation. We have no prospect of funding adequate font-line services, addressing the building pressures or funding a lower rate of corporation tax until we face up to those challenges.

Mr Campbell: I begin by apologising for the lateness of my arrival today, the reason for which can be found on the Order Paper under question 10 to the Department for Employment and Learning. It indicates a jobs fair, which I helped to announce in Limavady at 10.00 am this morning. However, I will not go down that route.

I want to concentrate the majority of my remarks on the amendment proposed by Mr Allister. It concentrates of course on the Equality Commission. Members and the general public will be aware that the Equality Commission has been remiss in carrying out its tasks for a number of years. There are a number of questions, one of which is this: why should politicians have to negotiate with, expose in the glare of publicity or meet the Equality Commission to get it to do its job properly? The answer is of course that we should not have to do that, but we do.

The question that Mr Allister poses is one of whether this is the way to get the Equality Commission to do its job properly. I would contend that it is not. The Equality Commission and indeed its predecessors were engaged in a number of failings between 1985 and 2003, when Mr Allister had walked away from confronting both the commission and its predecessors. In that 18-year period, he left confrontation not just with Sinn Féin but with equality bodies. Of course, some of the rest of us kept on and did not walk away. I am sure that we will come back to that at a future date.

The amendment gets down to a cash transaction; a punishment for the Equality Commission through OFMDFM. Yet Mr Allister does not allude to the fact that, in the Finance Minister's statement, there is already a reduction in the money that is going to the Equality Commission. Hopefully when we get the vote through and get this done, that reduction will be a factual one. It is a reality of a reduction; not a press release or a headline, but a real reduction. Mr Allister preferred to go down the press release route to get a headline that he knew could not achieve anything. He knew when he tabled this that there would automatically be a petition of concern. He knew that, but he went ahead anyway.

I have no objection to a proposition being put, even in the knowledge of a petition of concern, because sometimes you have to do what is right whether or not the objective will be achieved. If Mr Allister was saying that, then fine, we could live with that, but that would bring us on to another contention —

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Campbell: Yes, I will indeed.

Mr Allister: I do not quite understand why the Member is smarting. He talks about the fact that there is a reduction in the Equality Commission's budget. That is true of a number of bodies. It is not specific to the issue that I have been seeking to focus on. The purpose of my amendment is to give a platform for people to focus on that specific issue and to have a tangible impact on that. I must say that I am surprised that the Member takes objection to that. I would have thought that he was onside with that issue. It leaves me wondering why he is smarting about it.

Mr Campbell: Well, if exposing Mr Allister's proposition to the wider public is "smarting", I am happy to be smarting.

This is what we have today: a proposition that cannot be passed. He knew when he tabled it that it could not be passed. I am glad that he concedes now that there is a reduction in the Equality Commission's budget. There is one; a factual one, not a press release or anticipated one that can never become a reality.

Mr Allister arrived in the Assembly some four years ago, immediately on the heels of 10 years of 50:50 recruitment in the police, which the Equality Commission supported every single year. I have checked to see if there was an amendment. No, there was not an amendment because it could not achieve its objective, just as today's cannot achieve its objective. Mr Allister came into the Assembly and there was an Equality Commission-supported act of discrimination against my community and his. It did not provoke an amendment then or the year after. Mr Allister mentioned in his speech the staffing of the Equality Commission, and he was quite right. Some of us have raised that issue year on year, both when Mr Allister was here and in the years when he was not, when he had gone off and walked away from the confrontation. Yes, we raised those issues and will continue so to do. Was there an amendment then? Was there an amendment last year that, on the basis of the imbalance of staff in the Equality Commission, there should be a reduction? No, there was not. Was there one the year before? No, there was not. Was there one the first year Mr Allister appeared back from the wilderness? No, there was not. Nothing. The man was silent.

The proposition here is that we have to deal with the Equality Commission, and, thankfully, OFMDFM and the Finance Minister have looked at the general Budget and concluded that there is, as has been alluded to, a need for a general reduction and that the Equality Commission should not be excluded from that general reduction. Therefore, we must turn our minds to what action needs to be taken post the vote today and post the Vote on Account and beyond the headlines and the press releases to get a public body to do its duty and to get it to stop doing what it should not be doing. It should not be doing what Mr Allister, myself and others have talked about. It should not have been doing those things down through the years. This is not the way to deal with the Equality Commission. That body is wrong, and it needs to be confronted about the wrong and its error. It needs to be met and rationalised with and needs to have its budget reduced, as the Finance Minister has succeeded in achieving.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Mo bhuíochas as an deis cainte inniu. Tempting as it is to get between Mr Campbell and Mr Allister, I think that I will resist that and focus on the Budget, except to say that we are perhaps gilding the lily to refer to the Equality Commission as anti-Christian. The bits of the Bible that I read are very strong on equality. Of course, I could be reading the wrong parts, but, for now, I think that we can stand over the work that the Equality Commission is doing.

I have three quick points on the spring Supplementary Estimates that are before us today, as well as the 2015-16 Budget and Vote on Account. The Minister only referred to the past briefly. Sometimes the past gets us in trouble in here, but he referred to the so-called welfare reform fine from London of £100 million as a loss to public services. It is important to put on record that not all of us agree with that, because we do not think that it is a straight equation that that £100 million would have, in particular, gone to those in need, would have been spent on the economy and would have built up lives, families and communities. It is not a straight equation. I mention that because I hope that we are united in the Chamber against the ideology of austerity and that there is no hankering after that. We have decided to mitigate the worst effects of the so-called welfare reform that is coming down the tracks so that we can ensure that we eschew, rebut and refute the philosophy and ideology of austerity.

I want to focus on the Budget and the figures in front of us. I commend the Ministers on the efforts made in very challenging times when, as the Minister said, London has cut the Budget by £1·5 billion since 2011. Efforts were made by all Departments to focus our funding on growing the economy, creating jobs and trying to move the community confidently forward, and I think that we will see the rewards of that.

1.15 pm

I am of the opinion that we are in recovery. I see, this morning, that Ulster Bank economists are saying that the economy is stumbling, so it is clearly not a self-assured recovery; but I believe that we are in economic recovery. The big challenge for us, as a Chamber, an Executive and an Assembly, is to ensure that the steps we take in the time ahead push us farther into recovery, build the economy and create jobs. There is a danger, and I know that the Minister is aware of it, that when you introduce cuts in such an atmosphere you may damage confidence. I disagree with my colleague Mr Ó Brollacháin in that regard: these cuts are imposed on us by London.

That is the last point I wish to make, and it is well made by greater economic authorities than me. It is the opinion of Wolf, the opinion of Stiglitz, the opinion of Krugman and the opinion of Piketty that austerity, and the ideology of austerity, actually damages an economy.

To build confidence in the time ahead, we need to make sure that the moneys we have allocated in this 2015-16 Budget, in particular regarding the Committee that I am on, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, gets down to our businesses and attracts investment as quickly as possible. I think we have done that.

My final point is that Minister Foster will brief the Finance Committee on Wednesday, but I think that there has been a real effort, within that, to give comfort to the tourism sector. Those of us who were briefed on it know that NI tourism, in particular, was very worried. We managed to work hard, I presume, around the Executive table, to negotiate a much better deal for tourism, and I think that that has to be at the heart of the economic recovery of which I spoke.

Mr McCausland (The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. While the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has one of the smallest departmental budgets in the Assembly, it has an important remit nevertheless, which covers a range of activities that impact on the daily lives and social and economic well-being of everyone living in Northern Ireland.

The Committee has actively scrutinised the changes in the DCAL budget position throughout the year, subsequent to the monitoring rounds. I have to say that the Committee has experienced some difficulty in so doing, and in having access to monitoring round papers in a timely fashion. This is an issue that has been raised with the Minister and the Department. However, members have done their best in the circumstances.

The most significant change in the core departmental provision is the £62 million that was returned during the year because of issues around the stadium redevelopment programme. As Members are aware, there was an issue around perceived state aid, and then there was the situation around the recent judicial review of the Casement Park planning application, which saw the Environment Minister's planning approval overturned. It is good to see the work that has been done at Ravenhill and Windsor Park, but there has been a substantial delay to the commencement of the redevelopment project at Casement, and funding that should have been used has had to be returned. The Committee has been briefed on the issues involved, and the Department and the GAA are talking about a new planning application, although, as that involves an application, and the consultation around that, it will probably take most of this year.

Members expressed some concern regarding the absence of any anticipatory work that might have been carried forward to address the underspend, and there was also concern about the implications for the work on the subregional football stadia in due course, which may be put back a little because of that. The Committee also voiced its concern that the money for the project should not be wasted and that delay on Casement should not impact on the progress of the Executive-approved regional stadium development programme, which includes, as I said already, the football subregional stadium element.

During the year, the Department made a number of successful resource and capital bids through monitoring rounds for the UK City of Culture legacy. That refers to Londonderry's year as UK City of Culture in 2013.

The year was, indeed, a great success for the city, and the Committee was extremely supportive of the Department's work on the matter. The Department is keen to ensure that there is a lasting legacy from the events of 2013, as, indeed, is the Committee. However, the Committee has not always been clear about how those bids are part of a fully considered and planned legacy strategy. The bids have brought additional resources to the core departmental arts and cultural policy business areas. While that is to be welcomed, the Committee continues to scrutinise the use of those resources.

The Department has also made a number of successful monitoring round bids for resource and capital under the promotion of equality and tackling poverty and social exclusion (PETPSE) and Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC). The Committee is supportive of both bidding vehicles. However, again, the Committee has not always been clear that those bids are part of a clear, planned strategy. Members see the value of the individual bids, but they often seem to be spontaneous, rather than part of an overall strategic approach.

The Committee has considered the increased provision for National Museums Northern Ireland over the year and is supportive of bids that have been made through monitoring rounds for necessary work to maintain the NMNI estate. The Committee believes that it is important to ensure that the fabric of our museums is fit for purpose and provides an inviting environment for visitors. Recently, the Committee visited the Ulster Museum, and members were pleased to see how the facility is being developed as a cultural and educational resource.

The Committee remains very supportive of the departmental bids for resources through the monitoring rounds for libraries, and it supports the efforts that are being made to ensure that the library estate is well maintained and that libraries remain open against the current difficult financial backdrop. However, the Committee is keen to ensure that the value of libraries to our communities is not forgotten, and members support the Department and the Executive's work to make libraries a key element of any community renewal.

Members will also be aware that the Committee has been vocal in its support for the Ulster Orchestra. The Committee is particularly pleased that the orchestra has received half a million pounds through the recent January monitoring round. That alleviates its immediate financial difficulties. However, the Committee appreciates that that is a short-term measure and that work must be done to secure a long-term and sustainable future for the orchestra. The Committee is keen that this issue should continue to receive the Department and the Executive's attention. Members of the Committee right across the board place a considerable value on the Ulster Orchestra as one of the core elements in our cultural infrastructure as a region within the United Kingdom, and it is important that the support is there for the Ulster Orchestra.

The Committee is also supportive of the additional funding flowing from the recent January monitoring round for NI Screen and Cinemagic. Members are aware of the important work on skills development that that funding will support, and it is clear that the creative industries, including film and television production and digital technologies, will be vital to the transformation of our economy.

Sport NI has also received additional funding of over £4 million from the original planned Budget position. That change reflects successful bids in monitoring rounds over the year for resource and capital, including sports-related bids under PETPSE and T:BUC, as well as for the UK City of Culture legacy for the greater north-west. The legacy bids include resource and capital, one example being the north-west sports village. However, a significant proportion of the figure — over £1·5 million — is in the form of accruals from the previous financial year.

In conclusion, the Committee has been largely supportive of DCAL bids during the past year. In considering the way forward, members stress the importance of making sure that the necessary funds continue to be made available to DCAL so that it can continue to deliver its programmes and to conduct its functions effectively. On behalf of the Committee, I support the motion.

Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I apologise in advance of speaking to the House today; I am in the process of losing my voice. Some Members might be glad to hear that.

By agreeing the Supply, Estimates and Vote on Account, we are focused on building a just, fair and equal economy for people of the North and the island. Like all of you, I am committed to building a society and economy of opportunity, prosperity and fairness. We are at an economic crossroads, and it is time to choose what we want our future to be; whether we want to remain wedded to the Westminster austerity experiment or whether we want to carve out our own economic future, building our strength as an island economy. British control of our economy has ensured that it is our people who have the lowest household income in comparison with Britain and the highest rates of unemployment and emigration. Currently, emigration is at its highest since the 1950s. Our people deserve better.

We are caught in an austerity trap, and our people are caught in a poverty trap. Gone are the days when poverty was about scarcity; today, poverty is a direct result of economic policy and inequality. In our case, it is poverty driven by decisions made in Westminster. As I have said in the House before, the good news is that there is a way out of the austerity trap, the cuts agenda and the obscenity of child poverty and food banks. We can, together, secure the full financial powers to tackle inequality, promote competitiveness and allow businesses to thrive. We can take control of our welfare budget and policy, which is a powerful tool to support jobs and reduce inequality. With the powers over our economy, we can ensure that we use that wealth to boost the economy, create jobs and support public spending whilst reducing the deficit through faster economic growth and increased revenues, not spending cuts.

Westminster promises only continued poverty and austerity, but, locally, we can seize the opportunity to do things differently. In an overall commitment to fiscal responsibility, we could collectively provide a credible and sustainable alternative to the current British Government's fiscal plan and place a greater focus on supporting growth and tackling inequality. We can prioritise our choices in many ways. For example, by removing constraints imposed on us, we could increase our investment in infrastructure. Every £100 million in capital investment supports thousands of local jobs. Westminster's austerity policies are harming our people, economy and public services and they have put them under intense pressure. We are not, as the Tories say, all in this together. It is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged — those who need the most support — who are hit the hardest. We, in Sinn Féin, stood firm, and we can be proud that we have protected our most vulnerable and disadvantaged people from Westminster's attack on the welfare state. We will stand in opposition to the brutal spending cuts and assault on pay and conditions, which is harming families, particularly the most vulnerable. We will stand firm against the cost of living squeeze in our commitment to protect front-line services and to a living wage. We will stand firm in our commitment to building a better business climate.

Politics, North and South, is undergoing the biggest shake-up since partition. In the interests of all our citizens, we must seize the historic opportunity that exists now for change. We need to grow our way to recovery. Any recovery must be a recovery for all, not merely those at the top. To develop a prosperous society, we must sustain decent public services that are accessible to all, including rural Ireland. To protect vulnerable citizens, we need a good, strong economy. There now exists an unprecedented opportunity to transform the political landscape on the island, North and South. Collectively, we can achieve by making progressive policy changes, mapping a way forward and taking power back from Westminster.

1.30 pm

Our focus must be on building and rebuilding our public health service, eradicating housing waiting lists and creating meaningful jobs with decent terms and conditions. There is no greater obstacle to progressive change than austerity. Sinn Féin believes that the North must have secure economic power from Westminster to steer a different course from Tory-driven ideology, to leave behind austerity policies and to actively work to revive the island's recovery and economy.

Mr McKinney: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today's debate. I will focus on health, social services and public safety. As the Minister and all of us are aware, there are genuine and many pressures on the health service. Throughout the past number of months, I have expressed the SDLP's concern about the financial allocation given to the health service. Emanating from those fiscal shortfalls is the fact that severe and intolerable pressures are being witnessed in the provision of health and social care here. Once again, we only have to look at the recent cases, less reported, but still existing, of pressure in our emergency departments. That reflects the fact that they are not sufficient to maintain a high quality of patient care in order to deal with patient flow and provide that high-quality care. I will deal with some of the patient flow issues later.

In the past few months, we have also seen further evidence of consistent breaches of performance targets in A&E with regard to four and 12-hour waiting times. We have the worst record in all of the UK for meeting four-hour targets. We have seen the direct consequences of that with the curtailment of elective care provision, which still has to play itself out, which has caused delays in surgery and treatment and, in turn, left many patients needlessly suffering. We cannot continue to ignore the issues involving our accident and emergency provision that have surfaced during the past number of years. They are all too commonplace in a health and social care system that is buckling at its knees.

I reiterate, once again, that the invest-to-save plan of reform at the heart of the health-care system, Transforming Your Care, has not, by any stretch of the imagination, been properly funded. There has been a lack of shift left in expenditure into the community. That has resulted in very little meaningful outcome. I have been saying that, the SDLP has been saying that and it is becoming increasingly clear that more people are beginning to accept that narrative, none more so than Liam Donaldson, who conducted his most recent review into the health and social care system here. He said that the work of TYC is not properly planned or funded and that it has led GPs to take matters into their own hands by way of GP federations. He also said that the review team heard TYC referred to as "Transferring Your Care", "Postponing Your Care" and even "Taking Your Chances". His report states:

"Carers see it as a euphemism for dumping work onto them; general practitioners likewise."

Sir Liam Donaldson concludes:

"Transforming Your Care is simply not being implemented."

He goes on to say, and I think it is worth reading these issues into the record, that commissioning is underpowered and, effectively, not working. We will vote for money for the health service today, but unless there is some sort of radical change in the system, we will not be spending money wisely; we will not be spending money well; and we will not be spending money consistent with patient need. I want to conclude on Mr Donaldson's report on the issue. I think the health system here should be embarrassed that this point could ever be asked or raised as an issue in a report by someone as eminent as Sir Liam Donaldson. The report asks, "Who runs the health and social care system in Northern Ireland?"

"The lack of clarity about who is in charge is a major problem for Northern Ireland's care system. The difficulty is not that there is no figurehead, but that strategic leadership does not have the visibility of other systems. Without a clear leader, progress is piecemeal and change is hesitant and not driven through".

Once again, we can vote money through today, but is there a guarantee that it will be spent well?

Two other reports have come out in the last few weeks. Some people here say, "Sure it is happening over in England", almost as if we should blame it on a general failing here and in England. The reason why it is happening here is that we have adopted some of the same policy considerations. That is why it is happening here and in England. The Westminster Public Accounts Committee has done some significant examination of the issues, and it says that radical change is needed in its system to the way health care is provided, including:

"making better use of community and primary care services to reduce pressure on hospitals."

Where have we heard that before? We heard it here about Transforming Your Care, but there is no money available to make it happen.

The Committee said that the health service:

"was 'out of balance' ... because community and primary care services were not working well which places pressure on hospitals."

Where have we heard that before? We have heard it here before and experience it here every day. Once again, we will vote through money today for the health service, but we cannot guarantee that it will be spent well, certainly not on the basis of policy provisions copied from the rest of the country.

Finally, an additional external reference is that the King's Fund think tank referred to the fact that NHS organisation was disastrous:

"Radical changes to the way the NHS in England is organised have been disastrous and distracted from patient care ... People in the NHS focused on rearranging the deckchairs rather than the core business of improving patient care."

That is slightly different language, but, once again, the direction of travel is the same. We have not invested in the community side, which is the side that can take the weight off less expensively and make provision for people closer to their home, yet we have stripped out on the hospital side, leading to two pressures there.

All say the same thing, which is that the community side of health care is not being properly funded. We must reject the Minister's claims that the crisis that we face is not unique to here. In essence, it is, because we have followed the UK path. We must also look at whether the projected £113 million in trusts' efficiency savings are counterstrategic to the TYC plan. Even DUP Members have joined campaigns on, for example, Dalriada Hospital and the Bangor minor injuries unit, although they managed to overturn that decision, and in other areas. We have seen consistency among political opinion here on the need for funding in the community side.

It is pivotal that we examine whether decisions made by the trusts to save money will have further negative consequences down the line. We must get assurances that any decision taken complies with section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to ensure that proper consultations and screenings are implemented and that patient needs are fully appreciated and taken on board.

We have talked before here about the opportunities for efficiency savings in the service. There is significant wastage. Some £50 million was spent on bank and agency staff. There were 360,000 cancellations of hospital appointments by patients and the hospital system itself, and we have seen how we had to reach out to the private sector to perform operations as a result, which is funding them twice. However, we have now run out of road even in that context, as I reflected earlier; we have simply had to cancel elective operations in circumstances of extreme stress.

One of the other issues is patient flow. The Health Committee is examining workforce planning and, even at this very early stage, has discovered that the hospital health system does not know how many people are employed in GP surgeries. It does not do a real-time analysis of the number of people waiting each day for particular surgeries. If the system does not understand the flow through the system, how can it run a business at all? You need, fundamentally, to understand the flows in any organisation to be able to cope, particularly in the health system.

Most concerning is the fact that the block grant from Westminster is continuously being constrained, and, as we go into the next Budget, that will ultimately limit the possibility of doing something proactive to deal with the pressures facing the system. Ultimately, it is imperative that we begin to realise the root causes of the pressure on our health service and that we have a properly financed, measured and strategically focused reform plan in place that will facilitate meaningful outcomes to ensure that we have a health and social care system that is fit for the 21st century.

As we make decisions today, I reiterate that we can allocate money, but we will not know that it will fundamentally put the patient first. We need to have assurances in that regard.

Mr Nesbitt (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): First, I will make some comments in my capacity as Chairman of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

In-year, the Committee was briefed by the Department on its monitoring round returns before they were submitted to the Department of Finance and Personnel. We also received written and oral updates on the outcome of the monitoring rounds, but, unfortunately, the papers for the briefings for the June and October monitoring rounds were received just a short time in advance of the start of the relevant Committee meetings. That is a trend and an unwelcome one at that. The late provision of papers does not allow members time to consider them fully in preparation for the briefing, and it could impede our ability to fulfil our statutory role effectively, not least that of scrutiny. It was good to see an improvement for the January monitoring round when the papers were provided early. I hope that that continues during 2015.

It must be noted that the Executive applied a 2·1% reduction in resource budgets in June and, at that point, signalled that a further 2·3% would be required in October. That equated to an in-year reduction of £3 million to the Department’s budget.

A key focus area for the Committee was funding for victims. There appears to have been a lack of clarity on the actual baseline for the Victims and Survivors Service for 2014-15. The service told the Committee that it had received a letter in May 2014 advising of an opening budget of £11·685 million. However, OFMDFM officials advised that the opening allocation was £10 million, with the intention of restoring the baseline to £11·3 million through in-year monitoring. An inescapable bid of £1·3 million was not met in June monitoring, which raised concerns about the ability of the Victims and Survivors Service to deliver its programmes. The allocations of £1·3 million subsequently made in each of the October and January monitoring rounds were, therefore, welcome. In addition, although the Victims and Survivors Service will still be required to deliver savings in the coming year, the extra £3 million allocation in the 2015-16 Budget and the confirmation that the baseline for the service will be above that for 2014-15 are also welcome. The Committee notes that the Victims and Survivors Service will take measures, such as moving premises, to save money. I hope that that will help to maximise the funding available for programmes.

Members will be aware that funding for the historical institutional abuse inquiry had been done via the in-year monitoring rounds. In that regard, £4·3 million was allocated to the HIA inquiry in June. While the Executive had committed to providing funding for the HIA inquiry, the allocation of £5 million in the 2015-16 Budget was, nevertheless, welcome.

Other allocations to OFMDFM within the year included £3·5 million for Together: Building a United Community in June. The Committee heard that that would be used in a number of ways, including central good relations funding, urban villages and race hate interventions. In addition, £3·2 million was allocated to Delivering Social Change in January, which, together with £2·1 million identified by OFMDFM, enabled transfers to be made to the Health, Education, Social Development and Environment Departments to help to deliver the signature projects.

The vast majority of easements declared by the Department related to capital funding for the Maze/Long Kesh site, Ebrington Barracks and Crumlin Road Gaol, with some £8 million being returned to the centre. The Department did not return any non-ring-fenced resource funding.

1.45 pm

At this point, I will make some comments in a personal capacity, perhaps beginning with the easements and the Maze/Long Kesh. As we know, there is no activity on that development site beyond health and safety and the barest activity that is required. The development of the site appears to remain at risk because of an ideological issue over a party that has failed to persuade the people of Northern Ireland that it is a good idea to build a peace-building centre at the Maze. Let me make a distinction between supporting the concept of a peace centre, which the Ulster Unionists do, and locating it at the Maze, which we believe is the most toxic piece of land you can imagine for such a project.

No activity means we are not delivering the promised 5,000 jobs — 5,000 jobs. We are not delivering the hundreds of millions of pounds of investment because of this ideological hang-up over a peace centre. Yet, for three months in the tail end of last year at Stormont House we talked and negotiated about how to deal with the past, and we came to an agreement in the Stormont House Agreement on dealing with the past. It has many elements. A peace-building and conflict resolution centre is not one of them, so why are we not going ahead with the development of this strategic site called Maze/Long Kesh, with the hundreds of millions of pounds to be invested and the 5,000 jobs to be delivered for our people?

I mentioned at some length the Victims and Survivors Service. It is a matter of deep regret that there was not enough funding for the service in the last financial year. It is a matter of further regret that those who suffered most were the bereaved, because they have a particular desire for two programmes, neither of which was adequately funded over the last financial year. One is respite breaks. The bereaved like to get away; indeed, to maintain good mental health and well-being, the bereaved need to get away. Yet, despite having a reasonable expectation that they could avail themselves of a short break — based on years of delivery, not necessarily from the victims service but, before that, from the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund — they were denied through a lack of funding, as was education and training, the other programme that is of particular appeal to the bereaved of our Troubles.

Also, victims' groups found themselves disadvantaged through a lack of funding — for example Phoenix, which looks after those who put on a uniform and put themselves in harm's way to protect their families, communities and, indeed, this entire country from the threat of terrorist violence. Phoenix in Armagh. Phoenix in the Minister's own constituency of Strangford. Phoenix in Newtownards, which had, you might argue, the cruel and unusual punishment of finding that it ticked all the boxes to qualify for funding only to be told there was no money in the bank account and funding could not be made available, even though the rules said it qualified, was entitled and was due the money.

It is good that the historical institutional abuse inquiry survived. I know that many victims were very upset when the First Minister warned at the time of June monitoring that, if money was not found, the inquiry might need to be wound up. That was not a message that victims who have waited decades for the inquiry needed to hear, but the Budget line is there for 2015-16, so let us welcome that. I do not want to get into the judicial review of the inquiry and whether or not it makes sufficient legal advice available to victims, because I understand that the Department is appealing that decision, but I note the words of the junior Minister in the House some weeks ago. He warned that that could quadruple the costs of the inquiry and, once again, threatened that it might not even see itself through to its conclusion. That must not be allowed to happen. The historical institutional abuse inquiry must be allowed to finish its work.

I note the words from the Sinn Féin Benches about opposing austerity. It is a fact that every party that has a reasonable chance of occupying 10 Downing Street on 8 May says austerity will continue through the remaining years of this decade, so it is a fact that we will have to face up to.

Whether it is Labour, the Liberal Democrats or some combination of the three main parties —

Mr Hazzard: That is right.

Mr Nesbitt: — austerity will continue. I give way to Mr Hazzard.

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for giving way. I was not actually asking for you to give way. I was just saying that you are right that we should be breaking the link with Westminster because austerity is always going to be the dish of the day.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member. I did not realise that he was speaking from a sedentary position. I thought that he actually wanted me to give way. I say this to the Member: if we break with Westminster, we lose £10 billion in a block grant. You want to protect the most vulnerable by taking £10 billion off them. It is nonsense economics.

Let us also keep a focus on debt. Mr Hazzard may not be aware of this, but Her Majesty's United Kingdom Government currently spend more on servicing debt — not paying back the debt, but paying the interest on debt —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Nesbitt: — than they spend on services in both Wales and Northern Ireland.

Miss M McIlveen (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I will speak on behalf of the Education Committee. The Committee has endeavoured to track the changes in departmental spending that have manifested themselves in the 2014-15 spring Supplementary Estimates. As we are at the end of a Budget cycle, there is now quite a large deviation between the original planned Department of Education spending and the projected final outcome. The deviations, in the case of Education, are largely owing to significant allocations of additional resource, which, of course, is welcome.

It is a useful exercise to do an analysis of what Departments have achieved against what was promised. I note that the 2015-16 Budget document set out, in the case of many Departments, how resource reductions will affect core departmental staffing levels. The Department of Education did not include this information. I suggest that, in future, Estimates and Budget documents should set out staffing levels in all Departments in a consistent way. That would allow the House to compare actual performance with the promises made. The lack of consistency is counterproductive to effective scrutiny.

In the present financial year, the Committee has reviewed the monitoring round information and questioned the Department on its spending. On resources, there have been only a small number of changes. I understand that the Department expects to spend close to 100% of its resource allocation by the end of the year, which, on the face of it, is good news. The Department had a large capital budget in 2014-15 of around £182 million, which is about £70 million more than in previous years. There were some limited adjustments in-year owing to asset sales. The Committee has noted increases in end-year capital spending surges in recent years. As with resource, I understand that the Department expects to spend close to its full capital budget in 2014-15.

In addition to how much money is being spent, the Committee's concern in respect of capital has also focused on what money is being spent on. During the year, the Committee saw quite significant changes in the capital plan. Although members welcomed increased spending on minor works, the Committee was concerned to note continuing delays with major works; that is, new school builds. The House has greatly welcomed a number of announcements regarding the advancement in planning of new school builds. However, Members would be surprised by how few of these announcements have turned into spades-in-the-ground projects. This is of concern to the Committee and, of course, to school communities anticipating movement on projects. It is incredibly frustrating. Members also noted with concern delays in the Lisanelly project, with spending being somewhat reduced or deferred and a completion date of 2020 now being indicated.

On the savings delivery plan, yet again I have to report that the Committee is not able to comment on 2013-14 performance let alone provide any update on 2014-15. In 2012-13, the Education Department's savings achievement was the same as the average for other Departments. I should point out, however, that, unlike most other Departments, the Department of Education also altered its savings delivery plan targets in 2012-13. As Members are also well aware, DE, uniquely, does not participate in the DFP monitoring of savings delivery plans, and I, again, record the Committee's dissatisfaction about that.

Turning to the pensions issue, the House is aware that an actuarial revaluation of teachers' pensions liabilities has identified an additional recurrent cost of around £38 million in 2015-16. I understand that that will be met from a central fund in that year but will also have to be met for a further three years, possibly from the Department of Education's budget. Obviously, clarification of that would be welcomed.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)

That brings us to the Vote on Account for the 2015-16 Budget. On behalf of the Committee, I will mention one key issue, the funding for schools. The Committee was pleased to learn that the anticipated reduction in the aggregated schools budget of £78·7 million is to be offset by an increase of £80 million in 2015-16. That news is welcome, and it appears to mean that the projected spending reductions of hundreds of thousands of pounds in some schools seems to have been avoided, if not partially, at least for now. I have written to the Education Minister to urge him to put the record straight in respect of school budgets and to provide clarity for schools as matter of urgency.

I hope that the greatly increased funding for the voluntary exit scheme in the public sector, negotiated in the Stormont House Agreement, will allow some breathing space for schools and will result in a period during which principals can plan sensibly and arrange changes in resources and staffing in line with school GCSE and A-level cycles. A key point to consider in all of this is that the financial year does not align with the academic year, causing uncertainty when budgets fluctuate.

The 2015-16 budget was always going to be difficult. It is, perhaps, not quite yet the sea change in education in Northern Ireland that was initially proposed. It is clear, however, that in the medium, if not the very short, term hard decisions will be required in education. The Committee holds the view that if changes are to be transparent and sensible, it is vital that all relevant information is made available to stakeholders, particularly schools, and to the Committee for Education in a manner that allows analysis and time for consideration and amendment, and that has certainly not been the case to date.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House take its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Chris Hazzard.

The debate stood suspended.

2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions


Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): The Department has written to a number of primary schools following reports that schools may have been involved in coaching pupils for unregulated tests during core teaching time. It is not accurate to describe the letters as "warning letters", as their purpose was to provide school principals with an opportunity to comment and confirm that the boards of governors had complied with their legal duty to have regard to the Department's guidance on post-primary transfer. The guidance states that primary schools:

"should not facilitate unregulated entrance test arrangements in any way".

That includes carrying out preparation for unregulated tests during core teaching times.

In writing to the eleven schools, the Department was also enabling principals to provide confirmation that their schools were meeting their statutory obligation to deliver the curriculum to all pupils. The fact that a school was written to in these terms does not indicate that it has been engaging in preparing children for unregulated tests or, indeed, that it is failing to deliver the statutory curriculum. It merely indicates that a concern has been raised about possible coaching at the school.

The Department's overriding priority is to ensure that the educational needs of pupils are being met. The Department cannot stand by and fail to act when concerns are raised that coaching for unregulated tests may be affecting the delivery of the curriculum and therefore the educational development of all children.

Mr Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his response. Will he confirm that the boards of governors have supremacy in this matter? As Minister, does he recognise their independence?

Mr O'Dowd: The boards of governors do not have supremacy in this matter. A board of governors is there to ensure that the statutory curriculum is being delivered and has to have regard to the guidance issued by the Department of Education in relation to unregulated tests. They most certainly have a statutory duty to ensure that the curriculum is being delivered to all children.

The concerns raised with me and my Department vary in degrees of seriousness. However, is the Member seriously suggesting that my Department should ignore the fact that a parent, or someone else in the public, raises concerns that all children in a school are not receiving access to the full curriculum or that their education and learning is being fettered by the fact that some pupils are receiving preferential treatment over others? I think that I would be failing in my duty if I did not raise those concerns.

Mr Kinahan: Does the Minister agree with his party colleague Mr Hazzard, who has accused the primary schools that are coaching as misappropriating public funds, or does he agree with me that those are outrageous remarks that should be withdrawn immediately?

Mr O'Dowd: It depends on the level at which coaching is taking place, the time involved, and how much public funds schools are directing towards that. Public funds are given to schools for the teaching of all pupils and not just some pupils. It depends on the varying degrees to which it takes place.

The Member is vice-chair of the Education Committee. The Education Committee's role is to hold my Department, and me as Minister, to account. If I had failed in my duty to write to a school that concerns were raised about, a school that has been accused of coaching for tests or of not living up to its statutory obligation — its legal obligation to teach the curriculum — then the Committee would be justified in challenging me as Minister for not carrying out my duties. Here, I have the vice-chair of a Committee criticising me as Minister for ensuring that the statutory curriculum of our education system is being delivered. That seems to me to be somewhat ridiculous.

Mr Rogers: Minister, what evidence have you to suggest that some schools are failing in their duty to deliver the Key Stage 2 curriculum?

Mr O'Dowd: As I said in my response, we have written to schools and asked them to confirm their position with regard to this matter, and they will respond in due course. We received letters of complaint or complaints from parents and other members of the public. Therefore, we followed them up, as is my duty as Minister, to ensure that the legal obligations of my Department are being carried out.

Mrs Cochrane: Does the Minister agree that some preparation should be given to primary-school children in how to deal with exams? For many, within three months of starting secondary education, they are expected to sit a range of exams in numerous subjects. If primary schools do not do some of that prep, who will?

Mr O'Dowd: I am surprised that the Member is not aware that pupils sit various tests throughout their primary-school life. [Interruption.]

Mr O'Dowd: I assure you that they do. They may sit weekly or monthly tests so that the teacher can assess how they are progressing in the curriculum.

These tests are not for the benefit of the primary school or all the children in the classroom; they are for the benefit of a selected number of schools that select and reject 10- and 11-year-old children. They have nothing whatsoever to do with the primary curriculum, which our schools are tasked and given public money to deliver.

People need to get their priorities right. My job as Education Minister is to ensure that all young people, not just some of them, have an opportunity in life. The worst-case examples that have been given to me over the years show that some children are being coached for a test while others are sent to the back of the classroom with colouring pencils. Is that the education system that Members want to see delivered in our classrooms? It is not the education system that I am prepared to see delivered in our classrooms. I expect all schools to teach all children to ensure that they have an opportunity in life.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. What is the Minister's view of the educational disadvantage in those incidences where children are sent to the back of the classroom with colouring pencils while others are at the front being coached for an exam?

Mr O'Dowd: Any corruption of the curriculum is bad for education. Our primary-school curriculum is broad based, and we allow our teachers and schools to choose the tools, equipment and material that they need to deliver that curriculum to all the children in the schools.

Primary schools have a role in education. It is not simply to prepare young people and children for post-primary education; it is to prepare them for primary-school education. We have a specific primary-school curriculum to ensure that young people develop and are enriched in their educational outcomes.

Some in the Chamber seem to have the view that primary schools are there to corral children for a number of years and then to select the few — the chosen ones — and send them off to voluntary grammar schools and grammar schools while the rest of them can do whatever they want. That seems to be the mood of some in the Chamber. [Interruption.]

That appears to be the mood of some in the Chamber, whereas I believe that it is fair, equitable and just that the taxpayers' money that is given to schools is used to ensure that all the young children in our schools, not just the chosen few, receive an education.

Mr O'Dowd: The total number of teacher training places that were allocated to St Mary’s University College in 2012-13 was 165, while 160 places were allocated to Stranmillis University College. The allocations remained unchanged in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 years. I am considering the allocations for the 2015-16 academic year.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that, on the last available figures, only 18% of teachers found a job one year after graduation, the signature project is about to finish and the teachers' pension scheme is being extended to make teachers work for much longer, how in the world can he justify putting through teacher training places for probably more than 50% of the teachers that we need?

Mr O'Dowd: How the numbers are chosen goes through a number of assessments. The Member appears to be supporting his colleague's assertion that we should close our local teacher training colleges.

We are at a very critical stage with our teacher training colleges. If I was to reduce the number significantly, or if we had slightly fewer teacher training places, we would lose our teacher training colleges. It is for others to make that decision, but I believe that that would be a huge mistake. I believe that it would be a huge mistake to lose that economic driver in our communities.

One of the most important statistics about teacher training is that there are eight applicants for every one place in a teacher training college. It is still a very popular career choice for our young people. Those young people have to make this decision: if I take on teacher training and qualify as a teacher, will I have an opportunity to fulfil my career pathway and become a full-time teacher? There is a serious question mark over that for many of them. What we can do instead is to close down our teacher training colleges and send all those young people over to England. I, personally, think that that would be a huge mistake.

Mr McCausland: In view of the number of places to which trained teachers can apply, and if the Minister has the number who are being trained, will he tell us whether he would support the removal of the requirement that to teach in Roman Catholic maintained schools requires a special certificate, which is viewed by many people as a discriminatory practice?

Mr O'Dowd: That is a matter for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to take on board. I have written to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on several occasions, and I am awaiting a response. Personally, I believe that it should be removed. However, it is up to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to carry that matter forward.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. What impact might any further reductions in the initial teacher training intake numbers have on students who see teaching as a vocation and will not be deterred by limited places in local universities?

Mr O'Dowd: As I said in response to Mr Lunn, I believe that we are now at a situation where, if I were to reduce teacher training places even slightly, we would see the closure of our teacher training colleges. That damages our education system and our economy, and all that we would be doing would be shipping more young people over to England or Wales, wherever they wish to do their teacher training, and then they would return here anyhow. Let us produce high-quality trainee teachers; let us ensure that it happens here; let our teaching institutions become the envy of these islands instead of closing them down and sending our young trainee teachers elsewhere.

Mr Swann: Minister, are you aware that, at last week's Employment and Learning Committee, the Minister for Employment and Learning accused you and your predecessor of being involved in a racket and of being involved in a model that artificially topped up the number of places in teacher training? Has the Minister for Employment and Learning ever asked you to reduce the number of teacher places?

Mr O'Dowd: I am not aware of exactly what was or was not said at last week's Employment and Learning Committee. We will have discussions in regard to teacher training numbers in the time ahead with the Minister for Employment and Learning. We have reduced teacher training places over the last number of years by 30%. The Minister for Employment and Learning has asked for those numbers to be reduced. I believe that the numbers that we bring forward are reasonable; they think beyond the current economic climate and into the future. We are about ensuring that we have a good cohort of freshly trained teachers coming through the system. I think that the decisions that we have made thus far are justified, and I emphasise again that we have reduced teacher training numbers by 30% in the last number of years.

Mr Attwood: Minister, given that you said that it would be a huge mistake to close our teacher training colleges, given that we are in a critical stage in respect of Stranmillis and St Mary's, and given that there may be as little as 40 days and nights between now and purdah in the middle of March, will you indicate whether you believe that this issue, given last week's view of the premia for St Mary's and Stranmillis, will be resolved, because, if it is not resolved by 20 March, the finances of those two colleges will be in jeopardy?

Mr O'Dowd: I am not sure that purdah rules over Executive Ministers; I know that it relates to the Westminster election etc. I think that it can be resolved very quickly, and I understand that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are seeking for that matter to be brought to the Executive, and it may well be resolved there. I would like to see it resolved before that, but it is a matter for the Minister for Employment and Learning unless the First Minister and the deputy First Minister call it into the Executive again, and then it is a matter for the Executive.

2.15 pm

Mr O'Dowd: The Stormont House Agreement included a reference to additional capital funding for education as follows:

"a contribution of up to £500m over 10 years of new capital funding to support shared and integrated education subject to individual projects being agreed between the Executive and the Government".

Department of Education officials are engaging with the Treasury and the NIO to agree the shared campus and integrated school building projects that this funding is deemed applicable for. When agreement has been reached, the Department will bring forward the potential school build projects that qualify for the funding. The Department will submit these projects to the Executive and to the Treasury in accordance with the Stormont House Agreement. It is not anticipated that this potential funding for shared and integrated education will have any impact on my departmental functions.

Mr Allister: If each project has to be agreed, does the Minister anticipate the business plans for each having to be agreed by Her Majesty's Treasury as well as his Department? Does he look forward to that unique form of power-sharing with Her Majesty's Government? That might diminish him as a Minister. I would not object to that, but he might.

Mr O'Dowd: The fact of the matter is that you objected to the Stormont House Agreement and the £500 million investment in our education system that goes with it. You would not find yourself in this position because you would have said, in your traditional format, "No". You would not have to query any of those questions, because no is a very easy word. If you want to invest in education and build a better society, a new society that is different from the one that you and I grew up in, sometimes, you have to say yes. When you say yes, you have to work your way through those processes.

On business cases etc, I hope that the Treasury, like me, wishes to avoid duplication of bureaucracy rather than increasing that bureaucracy. Discussions are ongoing, and I hope that we will make this process as simple and effective as possible, that we deliver new builds in our communities and that we strengthen shared and integrated education in our society.

Mr Wilson: As well as accepting advice from Her Majesty's Treasury on his capital spend for integrated education, will the Minister give assurances that, with any capital spend that impacts on other schools in a locality, consideration will be given to the views of other education providers and that we will not have a situation where, for example, an integrated school is allowed to expand at the expense of schools that exist in the area and may well be operating under capacity anyway?

Mr O'Dowd: I will take advice from all quarters and then make decisions. That is the role often. Any project being brought forward will have to be area-plan proofed, so it will have to take into account its impact, positive or negative, on other schools in its locality.

Mr Dallat: I do not want to get caught in any controversy involving Mrs Windsor. Can the Minister tell us whether this money is about shared education projects rather than about shared education, which already exists in many schools? Those schools may not benefit from this bounty, whoever it comes from.

Mr O'Dowd: It is capital funding, so it is for infrastructure. It is for physical developments. I do not rule anyone in or out at this stage. We are still working our way through the finer detail of it, and I accept what I think the Member is trying to suggest, which is that, in many instances, schools have led the agenda in regard to shared education and that many have been years ahead of politicians on shared education. I fully accept that, and significant good work goes on quietly behind the scenes on shared education. As I said, I am not ruling anyone in or out of benefiting from this money, which is not revenue-led or project-led but infrastructure-led.

Mr Milne: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. What shared campus integrated projects are being taken forward in planning?

Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta. Six primary schools and one post-primary school have integrated projects being taken forward in planning. Those are, in the primary sector, Braidside, Portadown Integrated Primary School, Drumlins, Roe Valley, Omagh and Corran, and, in the post-primary sector, Parkhall Integrated College.

Mr O'Dowd: As part of the 2015-16 final Budget outcome, my Department received an additional £64·9 million of funding in recognition of the inescapable pressures facing education and the overwhelming response to the consultation. However, I must emphasise that there remains a significant pressure on the education budget.

Throughout the Budget process, my aim was to protect, as far as possible, the funding to front-line services. Therefore, following the final Budget allocation and my wider education budget review, I immediately allocated £80 million to the aggregated schools budget. That allocation means that there has been no reduction in cash terms to school delegated budgets, although, in real terms, schools will face pay and inflationary pressures in 2015-16.

My focus remains on raising standards and closing the achievement gap. That continuous improvement will best be achieved when schools are supported and trusted to develop their own school improvement strategies. Also, by working with the boards, CCMS and others, my objective, through the area planning process, is to develop a network of sustainable and financially viable schools of the right size, in the right places and able to maximise the use of available resources so that they can focus on providing the quality of education that pupils deserve.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he give an assurance to the boards of governors of schools, including the board of Holywood Primary, which meets later this week, that, following the budget allocation that you just mentioned, there will be no reductions as such and it will be business as usual for our schools?

Mr O'Dowd: I am very reluctant to comment on any individual school, but it has to be recognised that, despite the very welcome contribution of £64-odd million to the education budget as part of the final Budget and my allocation of £80 million to the aggregated schools budget, there remain wage pressures and inflationary pressures on schools. Schools will make decisions on how to manage those pressures, and they are best placed to do so. I am continuing to analyse the remainder of my budget and budget lines, and I am attempting to ensure that I provide more funding to front-line education services. I will make announcements on that in the weeks ahead.

Mr O'Dowd: As Minister of Education, one of my key priorities has been ensuring that our children and young people have the knowledge, skills and attitudes to succeed and do well in work and in life. I am confident that the curriculum allows schools the flexibility necessary for students to build the skills, attitudes and understanding that they need to be global citizens, connected and able to contribute to the global economy.

The curriculum ensures that all our students are educated in the changing concept of a career and the various types of job in the local area, as well as opportunities to explore enterprise and entrepreneurship. Those opportunities allow our young people to investigate the need for creativity and enterprise, whether as an employer or employee, to identify and practise skills and to develop the attributes associated with being enterprising.

The flexibility offered by the curriculum framework and the curriculum means that schools can respond fully to meet the needs of the economy. Taking account of up-to-date labour market information on skills shortages and priority skills areas as they emerge allows schools to widen and review their curricular offer for pupils.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh míle maith agat. I thank the Minister for his response. Will ICT subjects such as computer coding be streamlined in schools?

Mr O'Dowd: Computer coding is already available to our schools, and many primary schools in particular have taken advantage of bringing in outside clubs to add to their skills and resources in order to provide computer coding. Members will be aware that I commissioned a fundamental review of GCSEs and A levels in 2012. That work is in train, and, consequently, new and more challenging A levels and GCSEs will be put in place, including a computer science GCSE.

Miss M McIlveen: The Member referred to coding in primary schools. The Minister will be aware of lobbying by the digital industries for the introduction of coding into the curriculum from the age of eight. Is he giving that consideration?

Mr O'Dowd: The curriculum is broad-based. On occasion, there are demands for a variety of subjects or materials to be defined in the curriculum and to ensure that a certain time is allocated to the teaching of these subjects. I am reluctant to go down that road at this stage. I believe that the curriculum serves its purpose. It allows for flexibility in the system, although I am also conscious that, by 2016, the curriculum will be approximately 10 years old and will be subject to review. At that stage, it would be useful for the Minister, whoever that is, to conduct a review of the curriculum and make decisions on whether aspects of learning, including computer coding, should become compulsory.

Mr Cree: What action is the Minister taking to concentrate on non-academic skills, such as confidence, resilience, trustworthiness and other essential life skills?

Mr O'Dowd: That question relates to the first question that I was asked during Question Time: education is much broader than a simple analysis of the behaviour and performance of 10- and 11-year-old children.

The curriculum allows and is built around learning and skill-based education. It ensures that young people can avail themselves of a wide spread of topics and subjects. Indeed, when they progress through their learning in post-primary school to GSCE level, they now must have a choice of up to 24 subjects and, when moving towards A level, a minimum of 27 subjects. So the curriculum is built on a strong basis of academic, vocational and general subjects.

When I engage with employers — some are significant employers — they ask not only for young people who are academically well qualified but for young people who are well rounded, confident citizens who are able to be team players and team builders when they go into the workplace. The curriculum allows for that, and schools can and should be encouraged to continue down that pathway without distractions.

Mr O'Dowd: A review of GCSE provision is being undertaken here and in England and Wales. Since we have, in the main, an open market for qualifications, that will mean that revised specifications will become available to schools over the next three years.

Responsibility for introducing new subjects at GCSE rests with an individual awarding organisation. Decisions by awarding organisations, including CCEA, on the nature and scope of their GCSE offer will reflect demand from schools. In response to the requirements of the entitlement framework, for example, CCEA has, in recent years, introduced new GCSE titles, including contemporary crafts and agriculture and land use. In addition, in responding to discussions with key stakeholders, including employers, CCEA has, as part of its GCSE provision, plans to provide a GCSE in software development for first teaching from September 2017.

In considering the development of new titles, all awarding organisations will need to take account of the accreditation criteria requirements for GCSE qualifications, which are set by the regulator here.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his answer thus far. Given that some schools want to opt for subjects such as politics at an earlier stage, is there room to do that and what options are available?

Mr O'Dowd: There are opportunities, particularly through Learning for Life and Work. This qualification provides an introduction to government and politics and reflects the curriculum requirements for local and global citizenship at Key Stages 3 and 4. From foundation stage to Key Stage 2, all pupils study personal development and mutual understanding, which encompasses two strands, one of which is mutual understanding in the local and wider community, which can have a broad interpretation for teachers in the classroom. As I said in responses to earlier questions, they can use whatever material and tools they choose. I welcome the fact that, on Mondays and Tuesdays, you will often see primary-school children in and around the Assembly, involved in and learning about how the Assembly works and engaging at a very early age. I do not know whether they are impressed, but I know that they are here.

2.30 pm

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We will move on to topical questions.

T1. Mr Humphrey asked the Minister of Education what his view is of the recent sad decision made by the Belfast Education and Library Board to close Malvern Primary School in west Belfast, given that he has been very supportive of the children and young people zone for the greater Shankill. (AQT 2061/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: My view on that development proposal will be based on the submissions that I receive during the consultation period, whether those be from elected representatives, school pupils or the broader community. I have no view established yet in regard to the matter and will only make a decision when all the facts are before me.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his answer. On Friday, the Member of Parliament for North Belfast, Nigel Dodds, and I met the principal of Glenwood Primary School. That school is due a new school and will be an educational hub for the mid-Shankill. When will the work begin on that development?

Mr O'Dowd: Two questions for the price of one. Apologies to the Member, but I do not have that information in front of me. I am more than happy to supply him with the information in due course.

T2. Mr Buchanan asked the Minister of Education what action he is taking to free up the pathway for teachers from within the Unionist community to access employment in schools in the maintained sector. (AQT 2062/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: I assume that the Member's question refers to the Catholic certificate for teaching purposes, which was raised during Question Time. The Member may be aware that the certificate is available to non-Catholic members of the community through distance learning courses at, I think, the University of Glasgow and perhaps also through Stranmillis, so there are a number of opportunities for non-Catholic teachers to achieve that certificate and teach in the maintained sector.

Mr Buchanan: Does the Minister not accept that it is a barrier, and that the barrier is discrimination against teachers from the Unionist community?

Mr O'Dowd: I accept that it is certainly a perceived barrier. My personal view is that it should be done away with. In the teaching of the sacraments, I believe that there are other ways of achieving that objective and goal for the Catholic sector rather than every teacher having a certificate. The Member will also be aware that any change to equality legislation is the responsibility of OFMDFM.

T3. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Education for an update on the capital and resource funding that will be available to schools in the foreseeable future and to state how he is facilitating agreed amalgamations, such as the new school project for Islandmagee, which can improve educational outcomes and result in reduced running costs. (AQT 2063/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: The education budget was being discussed as I entered the Chamber just before Question Time, and, as I said, while I welcome the fact that we have received £64 million as a result of the final Budget, there are still significant revenue pressures in regard to education. I will make further decisions in due course as to how we deal with those revenue pressures and if and where we can inject more revenue into front-line services.

There is a significant dip in the capital budget for education moving forward. I believe that all the major projects that I have announced will continue to move forward. However, there may be some delay in some of the school enhancement programmes, and there will be less money for minor works programmes moving forward as well.

I have no details in front of me on the specific school that the Member mentions, but I am more than happy to share any information on that or give an update to the Member in due course.

Mr Beggs: Will the Minister acknowledge that the pupils, the parents and, indeed, the community in Islandmagee feel that they are being discriminated against given that they agreed the amalgamation of Ballypriormore, Kilcoan and Mullaghdubh primary schools over 10 years ago but, as yet, no school has been built? Yet the Minister has been able to find perhaps over £2 million for his own pet project school, an Irish language school, which will operate at a projected running cost —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Can we have a question?

Mr Beggs: Local children in my community feel that they are being discriminated against. Will the Minister ensure that he deals with all members —

Mr Beggs: — of the community equally?

Mr O'Dowd: One of the downsides of topical questions is that a Member can stand up and ask a constituency-specific question and I, as Minister, am supposed to have details on the 18 constituencies and all the projects.

It is simply impossible for me to have that. I am only in post four years, so whatever happened before I came into post I know nothing about. I have made announcements about capital projects moving forward. A number of them required development proposals, and I think that there may have been changes, sponsored by the board, around development proposals in the area that the Member referred to. Then there was a change of heart, and that caused delay as well. When I make an announcement about a new capital build, I make it on the basis of consultation with the sponsoring management body, whether it be CCMS or the education board. If there is a change after that, it will inevitably cause delay.

I assure you that there is no element of discrimination in regard to these matters. I have not directed any capital funding towards Coláiste Dhoire, and I will ensure that I continue to lobby for more money for capital and drive forward the capital building programme. I noted, as I came into the Chamber, that the Chair of the Education Committee was able to report that the Department of Education had spent all its capital funds over this last number of years, and I intend to make that the case this year as well.

T4. Mr Hilditch asked the Minister of Education for details on the extent of misuse and problems with social media in schools. (AQT 2064/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: Social media have a positive element, without doubt, and are used by pupils and teachers in schools in a positive way and to meet learning criteria. However, they are also used in bullying and the viewing and spreading of inappropriate information, whether it be about individuals or made-up information about individuals, referred to as cyberbullying. Currently, I have out to consultation an anti-bullying strategy. As part of that, we are looking at cyberbullying, and it will involve collaboration with the Department of Health, which is taking the lead on a broader element in relation to cyberbullying.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for his answer. There are indeed pilot schemes and programmes about at the moment, and I know that Mr Simpson has been involved in one in your constituency. Have you had a chance to study any of those? Could they be used across the education sector?

Mr O'Dowd: I was recently in a primary school in Pomeroy, County Tyrone, which, along with an outside arts company, has produced a very informative film. It was put together by the young people of the school and involved them. In that, they set out their relationship with and reaction to social media. I thought that it was very informative and succinct in the messages that it sent out. The simple message was this: if you would not trust a stranger on the street, why would you trust one online? The young people put the message across very well. I am familiar with the projects being run by individual schools and communities in relation to cyberbullying and other such matters.

T5. Mr Frew asked the Minister of Education for an assurance that the youth centres will be sufficiently supported in budgetary terms in the coming year, given the restoration of some £2 million in the Budget to the education and library boards. (AQT 2065/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: I have restored approximately £2 million to ELB youth. How that money is distributed across the youth sector is a matter for the education and library boards.

Mr Frew: Given the fact that the youth centres do a tremendous body of work with young people, acting as a diversion from involvement in crime and teaching young people other things socially outside the school setting, is the Minister supportive of enhanced funding for those youth centres?

Mr O'Dowd: There are different challenges and demands in education. It is worth reminding the Member that his party brought a motion to the House only a few weeks ago calling on me to protect front-line education as in "schools only". There was an amendment tabled by my party colleagues about youth work and other factors, but it was rejected by the House. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot call for funding one day and then reject a proposal for it on another. I fully support youth work. It is an integral part of our education system. Over my period in office, I have increased funding for it. I was keen to announce funding for the ELB youth sector at the same time as I announced funding for schools. I will do my best to enhance youth funding in what is a very difficult climate for the education budget.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Ross Hussey is not in his place. I therefore call Mr Sammy Wilson — Sorry, Mr Sammy Douglas. [Laughter.]

Mr Douglas: I thought the Principal Deputy Speaker was a good friend of mine.

T7. Mr Douglas asked the Minister of Education whether he agrees that Dundonald High School is making very good progress following the stay of execution that he ordered last year. (AQT 2067/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: I would go further: there are to be no changes to Dundonald High School. The decision has been made: it is staying open. It is an integral part of the education framework in that area. I take the opportunity to congratulate the pupils, the parents, the community, the teaching staff and senior management at the school for their excellent work since a decision was made on the future of the school.

Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. He did not include politicians — the MLAs who lobbied him — in his congratulations. Would the Minister continue to encourage his officials and others to work with the school and parents to ensure success for this major school in east Belfast?

Mr O'Dowd: I have no difficulties with congratulating the local MLAs on that matter, despite the hard time you continually give me. You and your colleagues worked well with me and my Department, the community and the school to ensure sustainable education provision.

T8. Mr Poots asked the Minister of Education, while declaring an interest as a school governor, when he will inform boards of governors about the readjusted budget, given the additional finance he has received in the Budget. (AQT 2068/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: We are finalising preparations for letters to all schools, which will, hopefully, issue by the end of this month. The Member will appreciate that we have to run quite a complicated formula, taking into account any changes to the schools' pupil intake etc. Then we will notify schools of their exact budget for the coming financial year.

Mr Poots: Does the Minister recognise the stresses that school governors and management teams have been under? Given the significant rise that he received following approval by the Executive of the Department of Finance and Personnel's proposal, will he adjust school budgets significantly upwards from the original proposal?

Mr O'Dowd: The Member is aware that I announced £80 million for the aggregated schools budget — the global amount — which is an increase of about 0·2% in funding for the next financial year. However, each school's budget is based on a much more complicated formula that has to be run for 1,138 schools before they can all be informed in due course. I remind the Member and the House that the year ahead for education is still a very difficult one. Difficult decisions have yet to be made. It will prove to be a very difficult year for schools, the Education Authority and any other body attached to education. I welcome very much the decision by the Executive to increase funding to education, but all Departments are dealing with a uniquely difficult financial environment.

T9. Mr Moutray asked the Minister of Education to outline the number and progress of development proposals submitted to his Department by schools in the Craigavon area. (AQT 2069/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: I think we have four currently in the Craigavon area. We have one for St Mary's in Derrymore, out at Aghagallon — now, you have caught me. Just give me one second; I think we have an answer here on something similar. There are two development proposals for schools in the upper Bann area: one for St Mary's Primary School in Derrymore and another for St Patrick's Primary School in Magheralin.

Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his answer. What does he intend to do for the pupils of Lurgan College, Portadown College and the Lurgan campus of Craigavon Senior High School, who for years have been in outdated accommodation that is not fit for purpose?

Mr O'Dowd: There is a difference between a development proposal relating to school enrolment or to a change of character of a school and one requiring capital investment, as in the second question asked by the Member. Both of them are, however, connected here. There needs to be a change of direction in education in that area that takes into account the needs of all the young people and not just two of the schools. If we get into a mindset where we are dealing with all the young people in the post-primary controlled sector in Craigavon, we can come forward with a proposal that will receive financial support and support from the Department of Education. At the minute, however, many people are focused on two schools rather than on them all.

2.45 pm

Employment and Learning

Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): Each further education (FE) college and higher education (HE) institution is required, as a public authority, to have in place an equality scheme and to report to the Equality Commission on steps taken to promote equality of opportunity for categories listed in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

During 2013, I asked my officials to conduct an audit of how our colleges and universities were taking forward policies to combat homophobia. The results of the audit confirmed that all our institutions engaged in a range of positive practices in that area. In the FE sector, all colleges have in place a range of pastoral care arrangements aimed at promoting the health and well-being of students by providing them with access to appropriate guidance and support, including personal safety and protection, anti-bullying, harassment, self-harm and suicide. Initiatives in place include running awareness and promotional events, training staff in combating bullying, providing support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups in college campuses, engaging with the Rainbow Project and working with college student unions. In the higher education sector, institutions engage in a range of positive practices. All higher education institutions have anti-bullying policies and procedures in place that cover homophobic bullying. Those policies and procedures continue to be monitored, reviewed and updated when necessary.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I acknowledge and welcome the measures, but students in colleges continue to experience homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic bullying. Does the Minister agree that more needs to be done to ensure that LGBT students feel safe while they study? What further measures will the Department implement?

Dr Farry: Obviously, colleges and universities are taking measures forward, and those measures are constantly reviewed. Indeed, we seek updates from the colleges to that end. I am stunned — indeed, I am shocked — that the Member, given that she is a former Education Minister, is challenging what happens in the FE and HE sector, where good practice is in place. In the wider community, there have been demands for successive Education Ministers, including the Member, to ensure that we have proper effective measures in our school setting to deal with, specifically, homophobic bullying and not just bullying in general. That has been a major gap in provision over the past number of years. In that context, I am somewhat surprised that the Member is challenging the good practice that happens in the FE and HE sectors, compared with what has not happened in our schools.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he outline the steps he has taken with regard to sectarian intimidation in colleges? Some find that certain colleges are a cold house for unionists.

Dr Farry: Our colleges and universities are very mindful to ensure that we have a neutral environment where people can learn together. A neutral environment does not need to be a homogenised environment where expression of culture is removed from that situation. Clearly, where complaints are made in that regard, whether to student unions or the authorities, you need to take those comments extremely seriously.

Mr Dallat: I feel the need to pay tribute to the people in colleges of further and higher education who have tackled the problem. I ask the Minister whether there is anything that we can learn from their endeavours and successes that could be used in the wider battle against homophobia.

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his comment. I join him in paying tribute to the leadership across the third-level education sector in ensuring that we have a welcoming environment.

My specific points in response to his question relate to how colleges can engage with the wider community through, for example, local policing and community safety structures and how they can engage with the community and voluntary sector, particularly the organisations that lobby, campaign and provide welfare in relation to different section 75 categories, including, for example, the LGBT sector.

Colleges should also look at how, in general, they can ensure that they have good, efficient practices in place that will robustly challenge in those situations where there is a clear breach of equality duties, including intimidation and bullying.

Mr McCallister: In his reply, the Minister quite rightly mentioned the importance of ensuring that through the main education system and into the FE sector. Will he comment on what measures are in place in colleges and through his Department? What support is there for young people on government-supported work schemes to make sure that they too are protected from any form of bullying or harassment, including homophobic bullying?

Dr Farry: The Member makes a very valid point. To that end, as we have sought to design our different apprenticeship and youth training programmes looking to the future, as well as our provision under Pathways to Success for our NEETs strategy, we have been very mindful of ensuring that those involved in the provision of training are alert to the risks of bullying, including homophobic bullying, and on how to ensure that there is proper pastoral support. Indeed, one of the key design features of the new youth training system, the public consultation of which is closing, is a much stronger focus on pastoral care than has been the case up until now.

Dr Farry: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I wish to group questions 2 and 10 together and to request an additional minute for the answer.

Bringing job fairs and information days into the heart of local communities has proven to be a very successful way of helping people into employment. In 2014, job fairs were held in Belfast, Derry, Ballymoney and Newry, and one was recently held in Craigavon. I am pleased that feedback from employers, support organisations and local clients has been encouraging.

Those who attend can be interviewed for a job. Additional services are available on those days, including online job searches and participation in a job club workshop, where those who attend create their own CV. They also get tips and techniques about interviews.

The Department has also held a number of local community events where attendees have been offered full-time employment, while others progressed into a work placement opportunity. After the recent event in Kilcooley in Bangor, eight clients progressed into work, 45 were offered a work placement opportunity and three commenced the skills development programme.

Importantly, following on from those events, many employers have requested my Department’s assistance with bespoke recruitment events, therefore providing further opportunities for local clients and communities.

Job fairs are promoted actively to unemployed clients visiting local jobs and benefits offices and job centres. They are also advertised through local media, press releases, social media sites, my Department’s website, JobCentre Online and through sending leaflets to local community groups, libraries and colleges.

My officials also take local geographical considerations into account and organise a community bus facility for rural areas, if required, to afford clients in those areas an opportunity to participate. In the lead-up to job fair events, my officials work with clients locally to remove any barriers to attendance and to ensure that every possible effort is made to allow clients to attend. That approach was successfully used during the recent job fair in Ballymoney, where community buses transported clients from Ballycastle and the surrounding areas to Ballymoney. The same practice was used for last week’s job fair in Craigavon. That ensured that clients from Lurgan, Portadown and surrounding areas could participate.

I am pleased that there has been a steady rise in the attendance at job fairs due to the measures put in place.

Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does the Minister agree with me that, considering the bad weather, the Kilcooley event was very well attended, with over 100 young people going to it? Does he feel that the partnership approach not just between his Department and me for setting it up but with the local community organisations, particularly the Bangor chamber of trade, is the type of model that we want to roll out across Northern Ireland?

Dr Farry: First of all, for the benefit of the press release for this week's 'County Down Spectator': yes, the Member did a good job in helping to organise the event.

The partnership between the community and voluntary sector and the local business community is very important. Those work most effectively when they are from the bottom up and respond to local demand. Where we can see clear evidence that there is a critical mass of people in the community sector or in local businesses who wish to take the opportunity, as a Department, we are more than happy to facilitate that.

Mr Campbell: First, I congratulate all the Departments involved in a similar event this morning that I left about four hours ago in Limavady, County Londonderry. I will ask the Minister the same question that I asked some of the organisers of that event: what emphasis is put on the evaluation after the events? This morning's event seemed to be exceptionally successful from the numbers that I could see. What lessons are learned once the evaluations have been received from the event?

Dr Farry: The Member is right to stress the importance of evaluation and constant learning as we go. I am pleased to hear the very positive feedback received from Limavady. Some1,700 people came through the doors at an event in Craigavon last Thursday; those are considerable numbers. We can evaluate success through a number of different outcomes, one of which is the number of those who progress into work or into further training places. However, we can also get feedback from those who attend events as to whether they found them useful and that they were being matched with potential employers according to their interests. Again, that feedback tends to be very positive.

Mr Ramsey: Like other Members, there is no doubting the value, the contribution and the success of these fairs. There was one in the Millennium Forum in Derry last year where hundreds of young people were queuing for jobs. It is a success story. Is there any way that you could look at incentivising small and medium-sized businesses to participate in and contribute to these fairs?

Dr Farry: The point is how we can look to do better in promotional work with SMEs to make them aware of the opportunities. It would be a much more efficient way, at times, for people to see the potential talent in communities than maybe some of the more traditional recruitment techniques. It may be viewed in the short run as a barrier or an inconvenience for businesses, but we have a message to communicate that this is something that is very much in the interests of businesses of all sizes but in particular SMEs.

Mr Lunn: Will the Minister acknowledge the role played by the local business education partnerships in this area, particularly, if I may say so, the Lisburn one, which is very active and had a careers convention just last week that attracted over 1,000 young people?

Dr Farry: Very much so, and I welcome that engagement. I recently hosted a dinner for the incoming chief executives of the new super-councils and the chief executives of our local FE colleges. The FE colleges have a very important role in business support, particularly around matching skills with the emerging needs of the new council areas, which are taking on additional economic development powers. Between the informal structures that we have at present and what we can do more formally through the statutory agencies, there is a real desire to focus on local solutions for these problems, recognising that Northern Ireland does not necessarily suit a one-size-fits-all solution. I was particularly pleased that we had representatives from Lisburn City and Castlereagh District Council, who were very proactive in seeking out new opportunities.

Dr Farry: In September 2014, I provided the Employment and Learning Committee with an overview of the key policy proposals that have emerged from my Department’s consultation on a range of measures designed to improve the effectiveness of our current employment relations system. Following that engagement, I secured the Executive’s agreement for the drafting of an employment Bill that will give effect to the agreed policy proposals.

These include a new process of early conciliation to be delivered by the Labour Relations Agency; the drafting of appropriate enabling provisions that would allow for a neutral assessment service to be established; the conversion from confirmatory to affirmative procedure of the Department’s power to amend the qualifying period for the right to claim unfair dismissal; and adjustment from 90 days to 45 days of the period of consultation in collective redundancy situations involving 100 or more employees.

My Department has recently undertaken further policy reviews dealing with zero-hours contracts and the rules that govern the operation of employment tribunals. A paper on legislative proposals on regulating zero-hours contracts is being prepared for the Executive. It is intended that a consultation on tribunal rules will be launched in early March 2015. It is my intention to secure Executive agreement to formally introduce the employment Bill to the Assembly before the summer recess.

Mr Ross: The Minister will know that, in order to be a business-friendly environment, we want to have a highly skilled workforce if we can get the lower rate of corporation tax and have flexible labour laws. Is he confident, given the fact that, in Great Britain, they have moved further on reforming employment law, particularly around the qualifying period for unfair dismissal, that after his employment law Bill goes through the House, we will not be at a disadvantage compared with other regions in the UK in being attractive to investors and job creators?

3.00 pm

Dr Farry: First, it is important that we approach employment law with a perspective of balance, ensuring that we meet the needs of business and give it sufficient flexibility. However, we must also ensure that we are giving protection to workers and that our law is keeping up to date in that regard. That is why we are looking at zero-hours contracts; not to rule them out but to ensure that there is adequate protection in an emerging area in how we are dealing with employees.

It is important that we recognise that employment law is devolved in Northern Ireland. We are the only part of the UK where that is the case. It is important that we are competitive, but there are different ways to ensure that. In particular, I highlight what we are trying to do about the routing of claims through the LRA and creating a much more holistic approach, based on the alternative dispute resolution techniques. Those things will put us at a considerable advantage compared with many of our neighbours. Unfair dismissal is a much more controversial issue, and the Member well knows that there is not an agreed approach on that issue within the structures of the Assembly.

Mr Kinahan: What does the Minister intend to do within law to make it easier for small and medium businesses to take on additional employees without putting their businesses at risk?

Dr Farry: We have a situation where businesses can take on employees. We are seeing, for example, a change to a much more casual approach to employment, which recognises how labour markets are evolving. In many respects, that is a natural progression, but it is important that, as government, we keep up to date with the changes in practice, that we ensure that our regulation is balanced and proportionate and that we are mindful of the interests of employees and ensure that their rights are appropriately balanced and protected.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Príomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Given his comments on the casualisation of labour and my concerns about the casualisation of workers' rights, what legislative proposals are contained within the Executive paper that the Minister is drafting on zero-hours contracts? Specifically, how does his paper intend to further enhance and protect the rights of working people?

Dr Farry: I welcome the Member back to the Chamber with formal speaking rights. He would have picked up from the previous answers that we touched on the issue of zero-hours contracts. We are finalising proposals in the Department to take to the Executive. Also, the Committee is set to get a briefing on the issue either this week or next week. We are seeking to introduce some regulation in respect of zero-hours contracts, particularly around exclusivity and the conditions under which people would have the right to request or expect a different type of contractual situation.

The main issue around casualisation is the uncertainty around pay and the knock-on effects that that has for someone when it comes to planning family life, access to benefits or the ability to secure mortgages and other such financial instruments. So, there is a big debate there. The intention is, once we get Executive approval, which will hopefully be secured over the next few weeks, to go to the legislative draftspeople to get the clauses drafted. Those clauses will be included in the main employment Bill, which will hopefully be introduced to the Assembly before the summer recess.

Dr Farry: Although the final budget for my Department has somewhat improved since the draft Budget, with £20 million being restored from the initial cuts that were proposed, the Department still faces an unprecedented funding situation. That will impact across all areas of my Department's work, including further education. I have tried to protect front-line services, but there is no doubt that the cuts will have implications for staffing in the colleges and places in the colleges. Those are, however, matters for the colleges.

I met with the Employment and Learning Committee last week to apprise it of my thinking on the budget cuts, and I am in the process of finalising decisions. I am proposing a £12 million reduction for the further education sector, which may be partially mitigated by the proposed use of £6 million of end-year flexibility, subject to the agreement of the Executive. That is, in effect, the use of the reserves within the sector.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for that update. I acknowledge what he says about it being up to the regional colleges how they decide their budget, but will he give us an example of the potential redundancies that that could create in, for example, the South West College? Will there be compulsory redundancies?

Dr Farry: With respect to the Member, I need to be very careful about speculating about places and jobs and what happens in individual colleges. Each will be in a different financial situation. The effects of the cuts will work out differently in each of those areas.

Without doubt, we still face a significant situation. It is worth noting that this is, perhaps, the first time in living memory that we are about to rationalise access to further education, which, hitherto, has always been open to the public across the board.

There is a coordinated approach in the sector to how the cuts can be managed. I am pleased that across Colleges NI, principals and chairs of boards, there is a common understanding of the different means by which the effect of the cuts may be mitigated in a manner that reduces the impact on the front line as best as possible.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for his answers. We learned at the Committee recently that there is a chance to try to offset the college budgets by equalising fees. Given the differential, how could that work?

Dr Farry: Our higher education institutions are entitled to charge a fee just short of £3,800. Our further education colleges are also providers of higher education. Two of the six colleges charge fees in the region of £2,500; the remaining four charge in the region of £1,500. So, across the sector — building on the point that I made to Mr Elliott — there is a view that those fees should be standardised at in the region of £2,500, which is still significantly less than tuition fees for a higher education qualification at a university.

Higher education within further education will still be an attractive option, in particular as foundation degree courses are designed with the needs of employers and the wider economy in mind. They are an attractive and lucrative way of achieving third-level qualifications that will stand someone in very good stead in their career.

Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for his answers. Does he agree that the cutbacks in courses in some further education colleges could have a damaging effect on the local economy, particularly the cuts in enterprise training, STEM subjects and practical vocational courses? What advice is the Department giving to governors of colleges to ensure that there is no shortfall in the provision that will affect employment?

Dr Farry: I cannot give any assurances when dealing with cuts. They will have real impacts on front-line provision, and we will seek to mitigate those as far as we can. Nonetheless, there will be an impact on the front line. The scale of cuts that we are making means that that cannot be avoided.

All of that will have an impact to some extent on the economy in different parts of Northern Ireland and in our society as a whole. We have asked for protection for some areas: for example, what we are doing on apprenticeships and the new youth training system will be protected. We have also asked the universities and colleges to protect investment in STEM subjects, given their particular importance to the economy.

A strategic and planned approach is being adopted to how we find the savings. Nonetheless, it is a challenging situation.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for coming to the Committee last week specifically to brief us on the budget. I know that he is trying his best to mitigate the cuts, but I understand that Belfast Metropolitan College is seeking to cut English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teaching quite drastically to meet its budget. What impact will that have on the new immigrant population?

Dr Farry: We take ESOL and access to it very seriously. What is happening at Belfast Met is just the standardisation of the approach taken in the other five colleges. This will remain a feature of all our colleges. As we continue to attract skills and people from overseas to work and invest in our society, it is important that we continue to provide them with access to ESOL-type courses.

Dr Farry: Minister Foster and I have been working proactively with JTI Gallaher to discuss its plans and the needs of its workforce in an evolving situation. My officials are exploring the use of the European globalisation adjustment fund in these circumstances. This provides support to people losing their jobs as a result of major structural changes in world trade patterns due to globalisation — for example, when a large company shuts or production is moved outside the EU. The fund has strict eligibility criteria, and my officials are continuing to explore whether these would be met in this case. I plan to build on the work of my officials and to include this in discussions when I am in Brussels later this month for meetings with the European Commission.

The Department has a portfolio of services available to assist JTI Gallaher employees. The careers service and employment service offer advice and guidance. This includes the redundancy advice service, which, in partnership with other organisations, provides information and advice on available options and support. The Northern Regional College has liaised with JTI Gallaher on the help that it can provide. In addition to its ongoing programme, which is open to all, the college is offering a tailored approach of conducting skills audits of the workforce. This would help individuals to obtain relevant qualifications, either by accrediting their experience or providing the training necessary to gain relevant skills and qualifications.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. He referred to the globalisation fund. What is his assessment of the likelihood that we will qualify for the globalisation fund and that those funds will go to the workers?

Dr Farry: If the Member is asking me to be realistic, I would say that our prospects are narrow. Nonetheless, we will seek to explore all the options. It was interesting that, when the announcement of the redundancies was made last year, virtually every party, in some form or other, rushed to the media to say that the European globalisation fund will be the answer to our problems, without necessarily checking through the issues. We have to bear a few things in mind. One is that we have to ensure that the jobs actually qualify. If jobs in Ballymena are being relocated elsewhere within the European Union, those job losses will not count towards eligibility. It is jobs that are lost to outside the European Union that are eligible. On the other hand, we can also include the supply chain, so we may just make that threshold. We then have to ensure that any bid that we make is approved and processed by the Department for Work and Pensions in London. As the Member will appreciate, it has to be channelled through the national member state, which, in our case, is obviously the UK. To that end, the UK Government have not previously supported any application to the fund. We also have to ensure that what we put in place in Northern Ireland is additional to our existing provision. We will have to make sure that we match fund the European globalisation fund from local resources or the company itself.

Mr Swann: The Minister says that the opportunity is narrow. What additional work are he and the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister doing to make sure that it becomes a reality?

Dr Farry: We have had a number of discussions with the company and floated with it the potential of its making some contribution, in the event that a successful bid could be made. We have had discussions with the Commission about how best to make an application. I intend to take those forward further next week when I am in Brussels. We are not yet in the position whereby we would be expected to make any application. We have to wait until the job losses become a reality, which will not be until May 2016. However, if we feel that we have a reasonable prospect of a successful application, we will seek to proceed on a shadow basis and get a provisional indication of the likely success or otherwise of a bid so that we can process a bid very quickly when the timing allows us to make one, which is once the redundancies become a reality.

Mr Frew: If we put aside the discussions on a bid to the globalisation fund, what discussions has the Minister had with JTI Gallaher to ensure that it leaves a lasting legacy in north Antrim and Ballymena in particular? That would be cold consolation, but it would at least help the community and people there.

3.15 pm

Dr Farry: Speaking for Arlene Foster and myself, we have had full cooperation from the company. It has been accessible to us and is acutely aware of the impact of the loss of jobs on the lives of individual workers, their families and the wider community. The company is more than happy to facilitate the work that we do as a Department, and also that of other agencies and the Northern Regional College's skills audit and retraining. It is important that Members bear in mind the key issue of the timing around when this will take place, because production is continuing in the factory and, if anything, will increase as it works towards the change in directives, so it is important that we do not interrupt the company's natural flow of business. At the same time, though, we can move quickly to intervene at the appropriate time. We stand ready to go when the company deems it appropriate for us to do so.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That ends listed questions. We move now to topical questions.

T1. Mr Ó hOisín asked the Minister for Employment and Learning, given his continuing crusade against St Mary’s University College, resulting in his cutting its premia, how he intends to protect its excellent work in promoting Irish-medium education. (AQT 2071/11-15)

Dr Farry: Let me be clear at the outset: there is no crusade against St Mary's University College, although, at times, if you listen to comments from the college and other political parties, there is perhaps a crusade against me in all of this. We have to recognise that the system we have at present is not working or delivering. It is very much an artificial system, where we subsidise our teacher training, whether through an artificial figure of teachers to be trained, the premia or the expansion into non-initial teacher education (ITE) subjects. We are doing more and more to prop up a system that is not sustainable in its own right.

That is why it is important that we consider reform, in the context of which we can put in place a range of models that can ensure that we protect issues around ethos, including how we can train teachers for the Irish-medium sector. We have seen how reforms have taken place successfully in Glasgow, and more recently — from September — in Dublin. In the case of Dublin, we see a Catholic institution, with a history longer than St Mary's, and a Church of Ireland institution with a history longer than either, coming together with Dublin City University to create a new approach to teacher training in the city. That is happening with the support of the Catholic hierarchy, and issues around ethos can be accommodated within a shared and inclusive environment. That applies to both the Church of Ireland and Catholic Church ethos in teacher training in the Catholic maintained system. That begs this question: if something can be done successfully in Glasgow and Dublin, why is Northern Ireland insisting that it is so different?

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he assure me that, contrary to what he has intimated, should the Executive decide to reinstate the premia for St Mary's and Stranmillis, he will stand over and implement such a decision?

Dr Farry: The Member knows well that, as a Minister, I am bound by the ministerial code and that, where a decision is taken by the Executive, that decision will be respected. However, that is not going to prevent me from ensuring that I continue to highlight the importance of prioritising skills in our economy. It is not going to stop me from talking about and continuing to promote the importance of a shared future.

The Member talks about the importance of protecting the Irish culture. I took the opportunity to invite some of the protestors who were at Parliament Buildings a couple of weeks ago to talk to me about teacher education and what was so important about it that they were trying to protect. I was quite shocked by some of the things that I heard. First, people said that they did not feel safe celebrating their Irish culture outside the context of St Mary's. In terms of what we hear, particularly from unionist Benches, over our universities and the perception — false in my view — about the Gaelic culture in universities, I found that an incredibly strange and narrow approach to take.

I also heard people say that they did not see the need to engage in sharing. They were quite happy, having gone to a Catholic primary school and a Catholic secondary school, to go to a Catholic-based third-level education system, because they would be going on to teach in a Catholic secondary school or Catholic primary school when they qualify, so why did they need to mix with anyone else in society? In the 21st century, when we are trying to build a shared future, I find those attitudes to be utterly shocking.

T2. Mr Hilditch asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail any effect that the budgetary settlement will have on those in the NEETs category. (AQT 2072/11-15)

Dr Farry: Very clearly, there are some major challenges in relation to NEETs. We were lucky to have a very generous settlement from the Executive for our Pathways to Success strategy for the 2012-15 period. That funding package expires on 31 March. To be fair, that was always the understanding. Had the situation been different, I would have hoped that that funding package would be renewed. That has not been the case, so we have lost that money, in the same way that we have lost some of our jobs and economy initiative money. It then falls to us to see how we can best address those shortfalls.

We are looking at how we can continue the community family support programme, and I am optimistic that that will be the case. We are also trying to see how some existing good practice can be replicated in the forthcoming European social fund (ESF) round. Applications have gone in on the basis of how they can engage with young people who are disengaged from the labour market. Indeed, that is one key feature of the current ESF round, which is a bigger round than in previous years. It is a very challenging situation, but, nonetheless, the strategy stays in place, and we will continue to see how we can find alternative means to deliver for that important group of young people.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for his answer and acknowledge the challenges that he has ahead. There will be a knock-on effect from the loss of places at the higher education level, which will impact down through the colleges. Can we give any protection to the vulnerable in our communities, where the colleges do a lot of work and programmes?

Dr Farry: It is important that our colleges continue to outreach in the community. There are some good examples of students themselves, through community and voluntary work, working in disadvantaged communities on some of those issues. Indeed, students can get credit through the new higher education achievement report, which has been rolled out in our higher education sector for those non-curricular activities that are so important towards employability skills. It is a real benefit for students engaging in those types of activities. Without doubt, we are facing a potential loss of provision, and there is no plan B for how we can mop up. If we had additional resources, we would do what we would like to do in our existing plans.

T3. Mr Hazzard asked the Minister for Employment and Learning why a substantial number of applicant organisations to the European social fund were disallowed on the basis that they did not provide management accounts, despite having supplied audited accounts, which has always been the case to date. (AQT 2073/11-15)

Dr Farry: It is important to bear in mind that we are currently going through a live process. Where groups wish to make an appeal, they can do so. At this stage, I should say that the guidance notes that were sent out in relation to the ESF round were very clear on the need for both audited accounts and management accounts. People were advised to ensure that they provided all the information requested. Nonetheless, where a group wishes to challenge or appeal any decision that has been taken, it is free to do so. A number of organisations are taking up that opportunity.

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Minister. I am not surprised that a number of organisations are taking up the opportunity to challenge that. It has been brought to my attention that at least two organisations were contacted behind the scenes by your Department and it was requested that they resubmit their financial documents. In an effort to redress that particular wrong, and maybe avoid court cases that will do nothing to address the financial crisis that many of those organisations now find themselves in, what steps will you be taking to redress the situation?

Dr Farry: Let me be very clear: organisations can appeal and we will listen to all the evidence that is provided. I am not part of that process. Equally, the Member needs to be aware, as does every other Member, that we have to ensure that we have an objective standard by which we allocate funds from the European social fund. Were we to find ourselves in a situation where the guidance notes and rules had not been followed, and if we were to bend those for particular organisations, that would have a knock-on effect for the integrity of the process. We would end up in a situation where a group that would otherwise be funded, and had followed the rules, would then have an even bigger potential claim against the Department.

T4. Mr McNarry asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to confirm how many regional further education colleges have been in budgetary deficit in the past three years. (AQT 2074/11-15)

Mr McNarry: I must say, I liked the Minister's response to the first topical question. We will see how we go from here on.

Dr Farry: I cannot give the Member the complete figures. I will write to him in that regard.

The situation in the FE sector has meant that the colleges have faced declining financial support from government over the past seven or eight years and have not had any meaningful increases. At the same time, we have asked them to do a lot more, so they have been doing extremely well to maintain their level of activity on what is, in effect, a declining resource basis.

As the sponsoring body for the colleges, my Department keeps a close eye on their accounts. While deficits may occur from time to time, none of the colleges are causing us any concern with their direct financial management. As the Member may know, some colleges have been in a very worrying situation in the recent past.

Mr McNarry: I accept that the Minister will forward the information to me. I look forward to receiving that and thank him for what he said. Does he accept that part of the solution will be the replacement of the big-college model with expensive big bureaucracy with small, lightly managed, responsive colleges with minimal bureaucracies?

Dr Farry: If anything, we are probably likely to go in the opposite direction, given the real pressures with resources. One of the initiatives that we are seeking to take forward is the promotion of shared services across the six colleges to try to find efficiencies in provision.

One thing that is not on our agenda is any rationalisation of the six colleges down to five, four, three etc. On the other side, we are not seeking to devolve things any further. We have come from a position of having a larger number of colleges, and the decision to consolidate, quite rightly in my view, was taken about 10 years ago.

I also want to be clear that our colleges are incredibly responsive and have changed dramatically their engagement with their local businesses communities over the past number of years. They are increasingly seen as the first point of contact with businesses, particularly SMEs, that are looking for skills and, increasingly, for research and innovation solutions. Some of the things that we are doing to manage the current budget problems and address duplication between the Department and the colleges have been resolved in favour of the colleges. We are trying to give them more power at a local level to engage with their local business communities to create local economic solutions.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mrs Pam Cameron is not in her place.

T6. Mr Nesbitt asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on the situation with regard to Emma Rogers who is working in Australia. (AQT 2076/11-15)

Dr Farry: I cannot give the Member a direct answer on that point, and it is probably not appropriate to discuss an individual case on the Floor of the Assembly. I am pretty certain that I cleared a response to the Member about that. Hopefully it has been received and a positive solution has been obtained.

Mr Nesbitt: I assure the Minister that Miss Rogers has no difficulty with the case being raised. She is a resident of Perth, Australia, although she is a native of Northern Ireland. She is working in a childcare centre and is under threat of losing her job because, although she is fully qualified — the Minister has the information to that effect — through no fault of her own, she does not have the certificate because of an error by City and Guilds. The Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority has said that she will have to leave her job if she does not get that certificate. What is the Minister doing to ensure that that person stays in employment?

Dr Farry: From recollection, I think that we cleared a response to the Member in that regard and the issue has been satisfactorily resolved. If the Member wishes to come back and feels that that is not the case, we are more than happy to entertain further representations. I think that the issue has been resolved. Hopefully the Member has received correspondence from the Department to that effect.

T7. Mr McQuillan asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on the Northern Regional College new build. (AQT 2077/11-15)

Dr Farry: Oh dear. Which campus?

Mr McQuillan: Coleraine.

Dr Farry: Let me be clear: the Northern Regional College will be a priority area of capital investment, albeit that our capital budgets are declining. We are looking for a new build in the northern part of the catchment area and a new build in the Ballymena area. We are still processing the business case. One particular issue that we need to bottom out relates to curriculum design and ensuring that what we are putting in place meets the needs of the future curriculum. Once that is in place, we will clear the business case and look to secure the resources to progress what are, hopefully, going to be two new builds in the area.

3.30 pm

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is now up. That concludes Question Time. I invite Members to take their ease while we change the top Table.

Mr Moutray: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Member of the House, let alone a Deputy Speaker, to refer to Her Majesty The Queen as Mrs Windsor? Will you have that investigated, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker? My party and I find it grossly offensive.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: It is common courtesy to refer to any member mentioned on the Floor of the House by their official title. I ask that the Member reflects on that.

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

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Has the Deputy Speaker taken the advice of the Principal Deputy Speaker and reflected on the matter?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I believe that while I am in the Chair, I cannot offer political advice or thoughts, but I am sure that anyone who was listening to it might have had a sense of humour and I will go no further than that.

Executive Committee Business

Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

That this Assembly approves that a total sum, not exceeding £15,646,075,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2015 and that total resources, not exceeding £17,051,879,000, be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2015 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 3(c) and 2(c) of table 1 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Spring Supplementary Estimates 2014-15 that was laid before the Assembly on 2 February 2015. — [Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

The following motions stood in the Order Paper:

That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £7,075,640,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund on account for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 and that resources, not exceeding £7,742,283,000, be authorised, on account, for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 4 and 6 of table 1 in the Vote on Account 2015-16 document that was laid before the Assembly on 2 February 2015. — [Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

That this Assembly authorises resources, not exceeding £50,000, for use by the Department of Justice Northern Ireland Judicial Pensions Scheme for the year ending 31 March 2016, for the purposes specified in column 1 of the 2015-16 Main Estimate document that was laid before the Assembly on 2 February 2015. — [Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

Which amendment was:

Leave out all after "Assembly approves" and insert

"that a sum, not exceeding £7,075,390,000, reflecting a reduction in the cash grant from OFMDFM to the Equality Commission, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund on account for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 and that resources, not exceeding £7,742,033,000, reflecting a reduction in the cash grant from OFMDFM to the Equality Commission, be authorised, on account, for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 4 and 6 of table 1 in the Vote on Account 2015-16 document that was laid before the Assembly on 2 February 2015.". — [Mr Allister.]

Mr Hazzard: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Supply resolution and the Estimates and the need to deliver a more prosperous and fair economy in the North of Ireland.

I want to pick up initially on a point raised by Mike Nesbitt regarding the Programme for Government commitment that was the Maze/Long Kesh. Indeed, it was a commitment, and it was voted through and endorsed by the parties before it was reneged on. I think that it is important to put that on the record, and that Sinn Féin stuck to its commitments and wants to see those types of projects going forward.

Sinn Féin is very proud that health and education will account for 65% of all resource expenditure in the North next year. The health of our population and the education of our young people are two of the most important responsibilities. Indeed, given the rising health and education inequalities at the core of services in Britain at the minute, the fact that 65% of our resources are used for health and education is, indeed, the right choice.

It is essential that our overall investment in health must be used to build a health service that is fit for the 21st century. Lately, we have heard plenty of talk about Transforming Your Care and the Donaldson report, but we must bear in mind that this is the North of Ireland; it is not England. We need to see local leadership, and we need to see equality of access. It does not matter whether it is for young or old, for rural or urban or for men or women.

The key focus of our work in tackling inequality is to ensure that Ireland, North and South, is one of the best countries in the world for children to grow and learn. When our youngest children enter school, they should have access to the best possible education. As a result of the wealth of consultation responses to the Executive's draft Budget, the engagement with the trade unions, the school community and the Education Minister, John O'Dowd, education has received an additional £64·6 million.

It is important to recognise the role that the Minister played in securing those additional funds. It is also important to recognise that, just a month ago, the House voted for a motion that called on the Minister to protect school classrooms alone, and that youth services and services such as Sure Start and free school meals were not as important as the classroom.

I am delighted that the Sinn Féin Minister was able to secure additional funds and that we will now see extra funds going into the Education budget. That sizeable additional allocation will permit much of the pressures facing classrooms across the North to be alleviated. The education of our children is the key to their future and to all of our futures, but too many of our young people have their life chances narrowed by circumstances that are out of their control. It will also help to protect anti-poverty measures that are vital in giving all of our children equal access to success.

Sinn Féin was also successful in negotiating £500 million over 10 years for the Education budget, to be spent on shared and integrated education capital projects as part of the Stormont House Agreement. As Mrs Cochrane touched on, that provides a unique opportunity to shape our schools estate going forward for the 21st century. Although the latest economic indicators are encouraging, we recognise that a strong economy is successful only if it is underpinned by a fair and equal society. To ensure that all our citizens have the opportunity to achieve their potential, we in Sinn Féin have stood firm in our objectives to protect vulnerable and disabled people, in direct contrast to the ideological war on welfare being waged by the Westminster elite.

We have ensured that vulnerable people, disadvantaged people and people with disabilities will not pay the costs of the economic crisis. We have agreed to provide over six years a package of almost £565 million to address the potential loss of benefits to individuals and families. That is complemented by anti-poverty measures and a supplementary payment fund that protects families with children, people with disabilities and those who are long-term sick. There are safeguards for those moving from disability living allowance (DLA) and for lone parents, and people will be comforted by the knowledge that the abhorrent bedroom tax will not be applicable here in the North. Those protections are unique to the North and are in sharp contrast to the cuts-driven onslaught in Britain, which has resulted in the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in Britain paying 80% of the cost of the crisis.

Whether delivered by neo-liberals in London, Dublin or Brussels, austerity is the wrong answer. Golden circles did not nationalise the wealth in the good times; they should not be allowed to nationalise the debt in the bad times. The key to economic growth is investment, not cuts. We need to stimulate equitable growth, not strangle hope and opportunity. Yet, as long as decisions regarding our economic future reside in Westminster, our local budgets will be slashed and burned. Westminster's relentless raiding of the block grant is stifling our capacity for economic growth. Collectively, we have had to make some difficult decisions to live within our Budget, which has been cut by well over £1 billion since 2011.

Austerity has become the price of the union with Britain. That price is borne out by the people who we represent here in the North of Ireland. For every £100 million cut by the Tories, we lose £3·45 million from our local Budget. The only way that we can reverse Westminster cuts is to take control of our economic future and to collectively carve out a progressive future for our local economy, one in which those who can pay do pay so that we can build a just, fair and equitable economy for all our people. For Cameron and Osborne, cuts work because they do not affect people who matter to them, but it is their decisions and their cuts that are blighting the lives of the people who matter to us.

Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): As Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, I will represent that Committee's views.

The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, like other Committees, takes regular briefings on financial and budgetary issues from the Department as part of its role to scrutinise it. The Committee, in its response to the Department of Finance and Personnel to the budget proposals, stated that any cuts and savings in the budget should have a minimal impact on the farmer and the wider rural community. The Committee is adamant that a reduced impact on front-line services to farmers and rural dwellers is given high priority and that those should not be affected to any great level, as that would be detrimental.

Bearing that in mind, the Committee was anxious to hear the budget proposals for the Department. Indeed, our most recent briefing was held on 27 January 2015, when the Minister and her officials briefed the Committee on the 2015-16 budget. The Minister outlined that savings of £29·9 million are required in one financial year, and taking that into consideration, she outlined her five key priorities. Those are the successful implementation of CAP reform; the implementation of the Going for Growth action plan; the HQ relocation programme; continued support for the tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) programme; and continued investment in flood alleviation work.

The Committee noted that with CAP reform, there will be significant changes for farmers, some of which are causing anxiety and distress. Farmers are being encouraged to submit claims online, the intention of which is to process and pay out more efficiently and promptly. The Minister advised the Committee that, in recognition of the difficulties surrounding the payment process, she has allocated £6·3 million to support that work, in addition to £0·3 million capital investment in IT systems.

One of the concerns of the Committee is that, despite that investment in new IT systems, there may be a reduction in the number of staff available to process payments. Given that there are cuts proposed across the wider public sector and the impact that voluntary redundancies may have on staffing levels, the Committee seeks assurance that payments to farmers, which are a vital source of income for them in running their business, will not be affected by staffing issues. Indeed, the Committee will seek assurances that essential business across the Department as a whole will not be severely impacted. Given that staff who have a wealth of knowledge and years of experience are the people most likely to apply for redundancies, the Committee is keen to hear how that will be managed by the Department.

The Committee heard that there will be an additional £1 million of funding available to support farmers in order to assist in the implementation of the farm business improvement scheme. The funding aims to support farmers in the decision-making process and to help them to develop a business plan. The Minister advised that her Department was keen to get the scheme up and running very soon. The Committee is due to receive a briefing on that very soon, and we look forward to hearing the finer details and the outworking of the scheme.

The Committee noted that the Minister had allocated a further £1 million of resource funding to the HQ relocation project, bringing the total resource and capital funding budgets to £5·4 million in 2015-16. The Committee is keen to see the business case for that project sooner rather than later. There is also concern about whether, with many of the DARD functions moving to other locations — for example, fisheries to Downpatrick and forestry to Fermanagh — a move to Ballykelly, with the costs associated with that, is the most prudent thing to do. Given the recent announcement of the Executive decision to reduce the number of Departments, we query how the relocation plan will stack up, given the additional pressures that will now be placed on Departments and the current financial position.

We were glad to hear that the Minister has maintained the £4·7 million funding for the tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) programme. The programme has been subject to a Committee review recently, and we heard about the effective impact that it has in rural and farming communities. However, as a Committee, we have expressed concern about why there has been provision for £1·7 million towards capital. Again, the Committee will be interested to hear what the proposals for the capital spend will be, especially when it has to be spent within the very tight timescale of one year.

Given the range of cuts outlined across Departments, the Committee is concerned that Departments will not be able to commit to their actions in the rural White Paper. The Committee seeks assurance from the Department that everything possible is being done to ensure that any rural-proofing decisions subject to budget constraints are made without any disadvantage to the rural community.

The Committee is pleased that the Minister has considered flood alleviation as one of her priorities. Everyone is all too aware of the devastation that flooding can cause; therefore, an allocation of £8·5 million of capital funding is to be welcomed.

Ms Lo (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment): I welcome the opportunity to outline the Environment Committee’s views on the motion.

DOE’s budget is one of the smallest in comparison with other Departments, so the Committee realises how difficult it has been for the Department to manage the 4·4% cuts that were required during the 2014-15 financial year. The Department has indicated that those savings were made by ceasing to fill vacant posts and by phasing out the use of temporary or contract workers, as well as carrying out a review of general administrative expenses across all business areas. While the Committee did not oppose those cost-saving measures during the 2014-15 year, members are apprehensive about how the proposed staff cuts can be realised over the forthcoming financial year. The closure of the DVA resulted in almost 300 job losses, and it appears that about 400 planning division staff are to move to local council offices as those powers transfer to local government. A further reduction of 500 staff — equivalent to one third of the current workforce — will be a severe blow to the Department. The Committee remains extremely concerned about how this could be managed without impacting significantly on service delivery.

3.45 pm

The Committee welcomed the increased funding provided during the year for the Environment Agency. The Committee very strongly supports the role of the NIEA in fighting environmental crime and dealing with illegal waste, particularly when it is on the scale of the incident at Mobuoy, where more than half a million tons of illegal waste has been dumped and appropriate remedial action is still ongoing.

The Committee also supports the additional allocation of resources to local government. Members are very aware of the widespread changes to be introduced over the next year as the new 11 councils deliver not only the existing functions of local councils but a range of new functions that will transfer to them from central government. Adequate resourcing will be vital to ensure the success of the new roles and structures. The Committee welcomes the Department's focus on capacity building in councils. Nevertheless, the Committee would urge the Minister that this level of support for local government should be maintained over the next few years so that neither ratepayers nor local communities are financially disadvantaged by the process.

The Committee also places great emphasis on the provision of road safety services and will be concerned to note that this area has had a cut in its resources. During each week in 2014, the death toll on our roads increased, and, as the Committee continues its scrutiny of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, departmental officials have reiterated the grim statistics regarding young people killed or seriously injured. The Committee is very conscious of the vital importance of road safety education and the need to support this work on an ongoing basis. Members have urged the Minister to prioritise this funding as he considers his budget for 2015-16.

The Committee has largely been supportive of DOE's bids during the past year and, in considering the Vote on Account, stresses the importance of making sure that the necessary funds continue to be made available to DOE so that it can continue to deliver its programmes and conduct its functions effectively. On behalf of the Environment Committee, I support the motion.

I now wish to make some comments on behalf of the Alliance Party. The first is that the Alliance Party opposes Mr Allister's amendment. It is tantamount to a threat to an independent organisation when it does something that some Members disagree with. It is almost an abuse of power.

Over the past few months, I have been inundated with correspondence from constituents who are deeply concerned about the future of the arts in Northern Ireland. The 10% proposed cut to DCAL's budget equates to a loss of £10 million. Within the draft settlement for DCAL, the arts budget has been even further reduced by 11·2%, a loss of almost £1·38 million. The proposed cut comes on the back of six successive cuts to the arts since 2011 and would set the arts budget back a decade to below the level last received in 2005-06. This reduces investment in the arts from 13p to just over 11p per person per week. To put the cut in context, the total annual spending of this arts budget would not sustain the health service for a day. It would sustain education for less than two and a half days.

I appreciate that the serious Budget constraints demand tough decisions, but it troubles me that the voluntary and community sector is always the first to be cut. I worry that too many MLAs have a tendency to view the arts as trivial and that not everyone recognises that visual arts, drama and music all enrich our quality of life. It is not just that: the arts sector grows and supports our local creative industries, which are worth £740 million a year. Those industries not only bring tourism, further investment and a sense of national pride but provide 40,000 people with jobs. There are financial benefits, too. The Tourist Board calculated that the top five arts events of the Derry/Londonderry City of Culture 2013 generated a 20:1 return on the investment and attracted a third of a million visitors. In all, the City of Culture boosted tourism to Derry/Londonderry by 50%. The 2012 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's created nearly £580,000 in tourism revenue, and local businesses benefited by approximately £1·95 million. The CEO of the Arts Council recently queried the logic of making the cut to a sector that helps to turn 0·1% of public investment into 4% of GDP

It is not just tourism and employment that benefit from the arts sector. Public spending on arts has a negligible impact on funding for other Departments and makes a very positive contribution to services such as health and education. Fifty-two per cent of the work undertaken by the Arts Council's regularly funded organisations takes place in hospitals, schools and communities. Given the collaborative nature of many arts groups, there is a real worry in the sector that, when one organisation goes, it will have a domino effect. You cannot just switch voluntary organisations on and off. When those organisations go, they are gone for good and to rebuild them will have significant costs.

A constituent sent me a letter asking:

"Who wants to live in a place where all the culture is based on sectarianism and backwardness? Shared events like Culture Night, the festival of food" —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member's time is up.

— "the Derry Jazz Festival and many others allowed us to come together for the love of something that has nothing to do with our divided religious and cultural paths."

Mr Wilson: In a former life, I would have upbraided Members for raising issues during this debate that should not properly be raised. Having listened to a good part of the debate, I have found that 95% of it falls into that category and that many people are treating this as if it were a Budget debate. Let us be quite clear what we are dealing with, and I will then try to stay within the limits of the debate. In fact, I sometimes wonder why the debate goes on for four hours, since it is a fairly simple matter of voting on the amount of money that the Minister will have to give to Departments to enable them to spend the money that was voted in the Budget a couple of weeks ago. That falls into two categories: the part in the Consolidated Fund and the part that is in the Consolidated Fund plus the receipts raised by Departments in Northern Ireland. This debate is not about — this is a very pertinent point, especially in relation to the amendment — discussing whether there is an adequate budget for one Department or another or whether more money should go into one Department's budget and less into another's. We have had that debate before.

That said, I will make two observations. First, if we look at the amount of money to be voted on to enable Departments to run budgets for the next six months, the £7,075 million is well above what would be raised by taxation in Northern Ireland. I will continue to repeat that in these types of debate. The Members opposite ought to remember that, when they talk about their green dream — I am not talking about the wee man in the corner either — of a republic and getting —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. I am not sure in what context the Member used the words the "wee man", but I assume that it was not the Member.

Mr Wilson: He is not there at the minute, so I do not think that I have insulted him.

When they talk about their vision of a united Ireland and breaking free from the United Kingdom, let them remember that the money that we vote on today, which is available in the Consolidated Fund for Departments to draw on, is there partly because we are members of the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom Government allocate more money to Northern Ireland than would be raised locally. There is the case, and the Supply resolution hammers home the case for the Union and why we should be part of the United Kingdom.

Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Member for giving way, and, overall, I agree with the thrust of his point, which will be no surprise to him. I remember Michaela Boyle making a point in the Budget debate that austerity was somehow the price of being in the Union. I thought that it was an absolutely ridiculous point. However, I took issue with him when he was the Finance Minister, and I take issue with the current Minister, that the Assembly is somehow a low-tax Assembly. We are virtually a no-tax Assembly.

Mr Wilson: We would certainly be a higher-tax Assembly if that crowd over there had its way. The important thing is this: being part of the United Kingdom brings immense economic and fiscal benefits to this country, and we should never forget that.

My second point is that the draw on that sum would have been much higher. Tomorrow, hopefully, we will ensure that it is not much higher, because we will put through the welfare reform proposals. Some of that money would have been withdrawn to give back to Westminster unnecessarily.

I do not want to go into all the pet things that I would like more money or less money to be spent on. Some Members may do that out of ignorance. I would not do it out of ignorance but would do it deliberately. I would know that I was overstepping the mark, although, Mr Deputy Speaker, you may argue that that does not stop me on occasions. However, it will stop me on this occasion, because I want to deal with the amendment.

I support the sentiments behind the amendment. Indeed, long before Mr Allister talked about reducing the Equality Commission's budget, I had said that publicly in the Assembly and had written about it in the 'News Letter'. I believe that the Equality Commission is being used, as has been suggested by Members opposite, as a Trojan Horse to undermine many of the values that are dear to people whom Mr Allister and I represent. It is essential, therefore, that, when we see the Equality Commission squandering public money — Ashers bakery is a good example — we ought to try to find ways to reduce its ability to do so. I note that Mr Allister's press release states that what he wants to do through the amendment is:

"to give tangible effect to denunciation of the Commission"

that many people across Northern Ireland have made. I want to give tangible effect to the denunciations that members of my party, thousands of my constituents and I have made about the Equality Commission.

4.00 pm

The amendment we have before us does not do that, for a number of reasons. First, this is not about the budget for individual Departments. Secondly, in law — I am sure that Mr Allister will make the point — the only amendments that can be made to this are by the Finance Minister. The Assembly cannot make amendments. Thirdly, as he knows, because of the route that he has taken, we now have a petition of concern against his amendment, so that it will not have any effect anyway. Some people may say, "That is just a message of despair. What can we do?" The question is not what can we do, but what have we done. Even if this amendment were to go through — if the petition of concern and legal impediment were not there, this was the time for reducing the available money and the amendment was not simply making a reduction in the money available to be drawn down generally — there is no guarantee where the axe would fall. It does not, therefore, have the effect it is designed to have, for all of the reasons which I have given. Indeed, had Mr Allister wanted some advice on this, I am sure that either the Finance Minister or I would have given him a quick tutorial on how to handle these particular issues.

The time to do it, of course, was when we were putting through the Budget, which, unfortunately, Mr Allister voted against. He may well say to me, "Well, why did you not do something about it at the Budget?" My answer is, "We did." The Budget that went through, and which he, and, unfortunately, some others, voted against, contains a cut to the budget of the Equality Commission. It is a bigger cut than the £250,000 notional cut in this amendment. There is a real, effective cut that they will feel of £430,000 in the Budget. That was done by working and using negotiations to get a Budget agreed and to make sure that it was not stopped by petitions of concern or whatever. That is the way to give tangible effect to the anger of the public, but, as happens on so many occasions —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member's time is almost up.

Mr Wilson: — the DUP was ahead of the game. We put a Budget through. The Equality Commission will have less resources next year, and I believe that thousands of my constituents will cheer when they hear that news.

Mr Rogers: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the spring Supplementary Estimates. Mr Speaker, I direct my thoughts to education. Directing funds to the education of our children is a direct investment in society and the economy. Our schools are already struggling financially, but the cuts proposed will have a detrimental impact on the education of all our children. Even at this late stage, with fewer than eight weeks until the next financial year, schools have no idea of their budget. Northern Ireland is in the midst of a skills deficit, hampering our economy. Failing to invest in education exacerbates this situation. The thousands of jobs promised by the devolution of corporation tax mean nothing if we are not properly educating our children. For young people to be fully prepared to enter into the workforce, or to progress into further or higher education, as much money and resources as possible must go to the classroom.

I am disappointed that the SDLP amendment, which would have allocated an additional £1 million to the Department for Employment and Learning to maintain the special funding premium for St Mary's University College and Stranmillis, was not accepted.

I have stood in the Assembly before and voiced my extreme concern that the Minister of Education did not guarantee that the majority of additional funding would be allocated to the classroom. I find it shocking that, in one sense, he says that he is protecting front-line services but that, in the next breath, he is cutting £87 million out of the aggregated schools budget and cutting the entitlement framework by 29%. When you translate that into the real situation in schools, it is teachers facing redundancy, young people with special educational needs who may not get the support they need, and the thousands of our young people who leave school without basic qualifications. Schools have been pushed to the brink. They have reached their limit; they cannot make any more cuts without our education system suffering massively.

I take on board what the Member who spoke previously said about this not being a Budget debate. However, we have to be really strategic in our planning. We need to be strategic in terms of the educational future of our children. As I said, we are close to a new financial year, but when your child in school makes a choice to do a GCSE or A-level subject, that is a two-year commitment. You could have situations where students made that decision last September but the schools do not know whether they can afford the teacher for the rest of the financial year, never mind the next year. That is what I mean about being more strategic.

Education not only enhances the life of the individual and the community; it is absolutely critical for our economy. We have no hope whatsoever of developing a sustainable and balanced economy if we have our young people leaving school without the basic numeracy and literacy qualifications. We are not meeting the skills deficit in areas like computer coding. We cannot meet the skills deficit there at the minute, never mind two, three or five years down the road. Investing in DETI in the hope of employment stimulation needs to be supported by proper investment in the education of our children. We need to prepare them to develop the skills to progress to third-level education and take up employment, if we are going to have a strong and diverse workforce.

The education sector has spoken. Now is the time for a more strategic approach to spending, particularly in education. In the 21st century, we must provide the necessary foundation for a vibrant economy.

Mr Swann: I welcome the opportunity to outline the Committee for Employment and Learning's consideration and views on the Supply resolution and the Vote on Account 2015-16.

With regard to the spring Supplementary Estimates, the Committee received a number of briefings from officials from the Department for Employment and Learning on the in-year monitoring rounds in 2014-15. Over the past year, the Committee received briefings on the June, October and January monitoring rounds, and it discussed a range of issues with the officials. All three DEL monitoring rounds have been unremarkable for 2014-15, which caused the Committee members some concerns. During the briefings, given that there have been financial pressures on the Department due to an in-year cut of 4·4%, it was noted that it had not put in bids for any additional allocations over the year; it seemed that the Department just accepted its lot. Instead, the Department tried to manage the cuts by finding in-house efficiency savings. For instance, the Department reported to the Committee a number of pressures, such as £1·8 million for the youth employment scheme, which it was finding from other areas of the Department.

Over all three monitoring rounds, members asked a series of questions about the lack of bids. They listened to officials indicating that they were able to live within their means. Other Chairs referred to late papers being received from the Departments in regard to monitoring bids. We did not have that problem; we just had a lack of bids. The Committee has, however, been somewhat assured by the Minister that, in future, the bids process, and, in particular, the change fund, will feature more in the Department's thinking. The Minister outlined in his briefing on 3 February that he is receiving £13·2 million for the new change fund and that, in future, in-year bids will feature more.

I will now move on to the Vote on Account 2015-16 with regard to the Budget for 2015-16. The Committee for Employment and Learning consulted with the three Northern Ireland universities, Stranmillis University College, St Mary's University College, Colleges NI, the University and College Union (UCU) and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA). On 4 November, during an informal meeting with the heads of the three universities, the vice chancellor of Ulster University and the vice chancellor of Queen's University Belfast advised that the proposed cut could lead to a loss of 1,100 university places between them, and that that would have a damaging knock-on effect on the skills base for promoting inward investment and developing home-grown talent.

The universities also warned of an impending brain drain if the proposed cuts were initiated.

On 5 November, during an informal meeting with representatives of UCU on the effect of the cuts, the union was of the opinion that whole subjects and areas of study could be cut from both universities, which could result in the loss of student places and staff.

Minister Farry briefed the Committee on the budget on 26 November, 10 December and, again, on 3 February to provide details of the changing situation. From an unpromising starting position, the Committee was glad to see the additional money that came to the Department at the eleventh hour. However, the Committee realises and accepts that the budget cuts on the Department remain severe.

During his briefing on 3 February, the Minister informed the Committee that he has had to manage a £61·5 million cut, reduced from the original £82 million cut, thanks to the reallocation of £20 million to the Department from the Executive. The Committee is glad to see that the Executive have listened to its warnings about the short-sighted nature of cutting Employment and Learning spending. In addition, when the £13·2 million of change fund money is included, the Department’s opening baseline budget cut is £48·3 million.

In dealing with the pressures on his Department, the Minister has outlined his way forward to the Committee. He has provided detail of the £33·2 million of reductions. They are made up of £18 million of cuts rolling forward from 2014-15, the removal of the £2·2 million premia to Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College and £3·5 million of employment service efficiency savings.

The main issue exercising the minds of the Committee during those briefings with the Minister was the impact on student places in our universities and colleges and the knock-on impact on the Northern Ireland economy. In detailing what the impact will be, the Minister has outlined that, with the £20 million reallocation to the Department, a pressure of £30·1 million remains on his budget and that will be managed by a reduction to the universities of £14 million, a reduction to the further education colleges of £12 million and further departmental efficiencies of £4·1 million. The Minister also outlined how the institutions hoped to mitigate those cuts. He outlined that the colleges will use £6 million of reserves and are well placed to receive £7·5 million from the change fund. Between them, that will help them manage the cuts, although jobs and places will be impacted.

The Minister also indicated that it is less certain how the universities will manage the cuts but that they are looking to maximise efficiencies and cut core teaching and research provision. In addition, the Minister indicated that a change is being made to widening participation measures, and that will reduce to 10% the requirement for universities to spend a minimum of 20% of additional student fee income on widening participation. This could increase the universities’ spending power by around £8 million, which could be used to mitigate the impact of cuts. Unfortunately, however, the Minister accepts that the remaining £6 million of savings to be found by the universities will most likely come from a cut in university places and jobs. The Minister also made the point that, even if there was no reduction in student places or jobs, in respect of education and training, a standstill is not a positive position.

The Minister also pointed out that there is a £1·8 million pressure on match funding for the European social fund and the community family support programme and outlined that if the Department is not able to attract the match funding, it will be unable to draw down the full programme and fail to meet targets. The Minister admitted that this was a difficult position to be in and advised that he would begin bidding in in-year monitoring rounds to ensure that the funds are maximised and that money is not lost to the block grant.

The Committee for Employment and Learning will continue its scrutiny of the Employment and Learning budget, especially the Minister’s efforts to mitigate the impact of the cuts.

Mr Clarke (The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development): Thank you Mr Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate in my capacity as Chair of the Committee for Regional Development.

It is important that we take the time to consider the implications and impact of the Estimates and, later today, the Vote on Account. Table 1, column 2(b) shows a reduction of just under £20 million in the departmental resources. We have had the departmental officials appear before the Committee to explain where the Minister and his officials have sought to apply that reduction. It is important to stress that it is the Minister and his officials who identify the Department’s priorities. I stress again that it is the Minister for Regional Development and his officials who decide on which areas within the portfolio will face reductions.

4.15 pm

It is disturbing and stressful that the Minister and his officials deliberately chose to target the most vulnerable of our citizens when they made these reductions. These were not, and are not, as the Minister and his officials continue to chant at every opportunity, Executive cuts. They were, and will continue to be, the responsibility of the Minister, his officials and the Department.

Page 226 of the 'Northern Ireland Spring Supplementary Estimates 2014-2015' sets out the actions that the Department will spend its budget on. It says that its budget will be used for the maintenance of roads, footpaths, street lighting and rural transport. Have the Minister and his officials achieved this? Most definitely not.

They cut budgets for the maintenance of roads, footpaths and rural transport. They allowed over 20,000 street lights to sit darkened before the Executive stepped in and provided additional funding for repairing those lights as part of the Budget settlement that the Minister for Regional Development delights in saying that he voted against.

They supported concessionary fares, again provided for through a Budget settlement that the Minister voted against, and they purchased buses for a company that is sitting with over £56 million in the bank. They talk in the Estimates of supporting regional planning and visioning when the reality is that they sought to switch lights off across Northern Ireland and attack the isolated and most vulnerable in Northern Ireland.

The Committee, unfortunately, does not have the greatest confidence in how the Department controls its budgets. This is evidenced in the debacle over phase 2 of the Coleraine to Londonderry train line, which has doubled in cost because of what the Minister himself described as "guesstimates" of budgets. Although the Committee inquiry is ongoing, there is an evident belief that the Minister and his Department cannot dissolve or dilute their responsibilities in this matter, both in accountability and in overall governance of the project.

They have failed to learn lessons from the past and have chosen to bury their heads in the sand when claiming that no additional money has been spent. Additional money has been spent on consultancy firms estimating a 25% increase in passenger numbers on the route when the reality is that they have increased by 185%. It has been spent on additional tendering processes and needs to be spent on an inflated project cost that has increased from £22 million to £40 million. The Minister has identified this as a priority, and the Committee is fully supportive of the rail track as a priority, but he needs to recognise his Department’s failings in this process. He must recognise that actions need to be taken to ensure that budgets for major capital projects are on time and he needs to ensure that the appropriate governance and accountability processes are applied correctly in future.

I note that table 1, column 2(b), shows an allocation of £5 million with regard to high-quality water and this has to be welcomed. It is, however, worrying that the Department advised the Committee on 4 February that:

"It is unlikely DRD will be able to provide sufficient funding to NI Water for PC15 operating costs and capital".

Although it is probably more appropriate to discuss this in detail during the Budget debate next week, I would like to put on record our concern on this matter. The Department needs to ensure that it balances its decision to cut NI Water budgets with the increased potential and the very significant cost to the block of infraction proceedings in respect of the Ballycastle treatment plant and Belfast lough.

We have come through some very difficult times, not necessarily unscathed, and we are facing further difficult times ahead. It is imperative, therefore, that constrained budgets are utilised in the most efficient and effective way. The Department has been very successful in accessing European funding for a number of transport schemes, and the Committee continues to encourage this as an avenue for matching its limited budgets. Likewise, the Committee is very supportive of joined-up initiatives for cycling that can be used to offset costs to the wider Northern Ireland plc block through increased health and environmental savings, for example.

It is time for the Department to take the initiative within the confines of governance arrangements and use its budgets in new and innovative ways. I can assure the House that the Committee for Regional Development will continue to work with the Department to achieve the most effective and efficient use of its budgets. We will, however, continue to be effective in our scrutiny of the Department and its arm’s-length bodies to ensure that the public purse is protected and that the objectives and actions listed in the Supplementary Estimates are achieved.

Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. There are a number of issues that I would like to raise on behalf of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee. Since the draft Budget position, Invest NI's allocation has increased from £98 million to £132·5 million.

That includes £7·1 million from the change fund for a joint bid with DEL towards support for increases in the relevance and use of skills across all economic sectors. I will refer to that again, but where the voluntary exit scheme in particular and potential changes to corporation tax are concerned, that is especially relevant, as we will require the introduction of new, well-skilled people of whatever age. They may be people of experience, of little experience or of no experience, but they may be exiting the public sector to be reskilled for the new job creation that may arise as a consequence of a reduction in corporation tax rates.

During an oral briefing, DETI officials informed the Committee that the draft Budget's proposed Invest NI allocation would mean that the organisation would have to scale back its targets. That was considered a key concern for Invest NI and DETI, as around 93% of Invest NI's draft budget was already committed. That would have left little additional funding for attracting new investment. Again, if that pattern continued, it would be at the wrong time, in the wrong place and certainly out of sync with both those items that I mentioned — the voluntary exit scheme and the bids to lower corporation tax.

The Committee has been led to believe that there is a guarantee from the Executive — the industrial development guarantee — that no worthwhile proposal for eligible support for economic development or investment would be lost due to a lack of funding. Following a query from the Committee, the Department stated that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is firmly of the view that that commitment remains in place. It is important that we get clarity and maybe have that commitment repeated today by the Minister of Finance. I especially ask that the Minister provides firm assurances that the Budget allocation is sufficient to ensure that, first, Invest NI will not have to scale back its targets and that, secondly, the industrial development guarantee remains in place.

Another issue that manifested itself, particularly in public last week in some parts of the media, is farm safety. The Health and Safety Executive's budget has increased by £200,000 from the draft Budget position to £5·9 million. Whilst that might seem an insubstantial amount, the Committee had considerable concerns after officials informed it that, under draft Budget proposals, the Health and Safety Executive would have to suspend all farm safety campaigns. That is being announced at a time when farmers are getting back into the fields to spread slurry and are exposed to the dangers associated with slurry mixing. The media profile within the last week or so has encouraged farmers to be exceptionally careful around their farms. We are all very well aware of the serious and sad instances of people losing their life on farms as a result of those issues. I think that it is important that that matter is emphasised now so that it can be established whether the farm safety campaigning budgets at the HSENI can be secured.

A key question for the Committee and, undoubtedly, for the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is this: what will the additional £200,000 allocation be used for? Will it be used to ensure that at least some, if not all, farm safety campaign activity can continue? That is very important.

There has been heavy emphasis in the Committee on R&D and innovation projects, which again ties in with economic development in the North. A key element of that has been the drawdown of EU funding, especially Horizon 2020 funding, which the rest of the island has been very successful in drawing down. Therefore, it is important that I emphasise both the role of InterTradeIreland and its budget in providing services and the need to make sure that it does not suffer disproportionately from separate reductions, North and South. InterTradeIreland has been instrumental in supporting and helping a lot of businesses, and its role in supporting and helping those businesses in their drawdown of EU funds has been emphasised to us. A small cutback there could result in not insubstantial amounts of funding being drawn down.

It is important that we, as an economy that is looking forward and that will hopefully be investing in its research, innovation and development, see the bigger picture and invest moneys where they are most required to draw down that funding and to help build a new 21st century economy in the North. There is an issue around the reinstatement of the events fund. It is one of the areas that the Committee will wish to cover and, indeed, raise with the Minister tomorrow when she attends.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. He raises a pertinent issue about the events fund. Is it the Member's understanding, as it is mine, that whilst we welcome the reinstatement of the events fund, it would appear to have been reduced from around £2·4 million to just £1 million, obviously a significant and disproportionate cut.

Mr McGlone: Any cut of that magnitude, which appears to be almost 50%, will have a significant import upon the activities carried out. It is an issue that I will undertake to raise tomorrow with the Minister and establish from her that if that funding is being cut back to that level, what substitute funding, streams of funding or other supports may be put in place to help with the events associated with and supported by the Events Company.

In conclusion, a LeasCheann Comhairle, thank you for your time, and I trust that those matters will be taken on board by the Minister. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Lyttle: The Alliance Party opposed the Budget at the Executive and in the Assembly for what we believe is a lack of a long-term, strategic approach to serious social and economic challenges facing our society. We have made our concerns clear. I heed Mr Wilson's admonishment that this is no longer the Budget debate and that we have now to start accepting the democratic will of the Assembly in relation to the Budget.

I will, however, take this opportunity to continue to raise red-flag warnings in relation to aspects of the Budget that were brought to my attention as a member of the Committee for Regional Development.

The Minister of Finance says that the Budget is about tough choices, yet by deferring difficult decisions on many issues, for example our water services and other fair revenue raising and redistribution, the Executive are failing to adequately invest in our public services, including our water system and infrastructure, which is critical to the health, economic development and environmental well-being of the community.

It is time that the DUP Finance Minister, the Ulster Unionist Regional Development Minister, indeed all parties, were honest with the public on water. The DUP Finance Minister accuses Alliance of shirking tough choices in relation to the Budget yet resorts to short-sighted, populist political campaigning rather than fair and responsible Budget management.

The Minister for Regional Development has said that at least £750 million will be required from 2015 to 2021 for a water system upgrade for the Belfast water and sewerage system alone; yet the draft DRD budgets allocate around £450 million for capital investment for that period. That is approximately £300 million short and the Executive already subsidise the cost of water services by £250 to £300 million per year.

That is £300 million lost to other important public expenditure, such as health, education and independent advice services to assist the most vulnerable with welfare reform, so there is under-investment in water and other public services, and that subsidy.

We also have the risk of European infraction. The European Commission commenced infraction proceedings against the UK Government for Ballycastle waste water treatment works. The Minister for Regional Development says that Belfast harbour is now at risk of failing to meet required water-quality standards.

The European Commission water framework directive also requires states to recover the costs of water services and by 2010 to have introduced water-pricing policies that incentivise efficient water use. The Minister has made it clear that, whilst Northern Ireland charges for non-domestic water use, the absence of domestic water charges is another European Commission infraction risk.

The Committee for Regional Development has been told that it is unlikely that the Department for Regional Development will be able to provide adequate funding for Northern Ireland Water for operating and capital costs. It is my understanding that the Northern Ireland Water budget is short by around £14·7 million for 2015-16. Add to that the potential £13 million overspend by the Department for Regional Development for this year. We have also been told that waste water infrastructure is insufficient to meet the future requirements expected of it, with the problem most acute in Belfast. The Finance Minister says that the 2015-16 Budget is about tough choices, yet he and other parties have completely avoided the difficult decisions around water and other fair revenue raising and redistribution. My party believes that we have to be open and honest about the need for serious consideration of the introduction of fair domestic water pricing based on the ability to pay if we are to meet the demands on this and other vital public services, which I have set out today.

4.30 pm

It is my understanding that we have received no ministerial attendance at the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, of which I am a member, in relation to the Budget and a complete lack of detail around some key Budget allocations, for example, £10 million towards the Together: Building a United Community strategy. This is of particular concern given OFMDFM's track record of gross underspend on other key areas of policy provision, such as the childcare budget and the social investment fund budget, dedicated to the tackling of deprivation in and the regeneration of our community.

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I oppose the disproportionate and targeted reduction of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland proposed by Mr Allister. It is my understanding that the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has already experienced a 10% reduction and staffing reductions over the last four years. It is there, as an independent body, to play a key role for equality in our community. It does essential work around the Fair Employment and Treatment Order, section 75 and disability discrimination, and it is a vital scrutiny body to ensure that equality and good relations are advanced in our community.

Those of us who support a shared and prosperous future for Northern Ireland clearly have our work cut out to ensure that the hard-earned public finances are spent in the best interests of everyone in this community.

Mr Attwood: I apologise to the House that I have not been in attendance for much of the debate. As the Minister will appreciate, it was my children's parental consultation this afternoon, so I am just back from their school. I will take an intervention on that matter if the Minister is minded to ask me any questions. If not, I will move on.

Mr Hamilton: If you hurry up, I will be able to make mine.

Mr Attwood: I will hurry up, but I will take 10 minutes.

There are four matters that I want to bring the Minister's attention to and ask him to deal with either in his response or subsequently. The Minister is aware that the SDLP tabled an amendment to adjust the top line Vote on Account by £1 million, which is in or around 45% of the premia that would otherwise go to Stranmillis University College and St Mary's University College, to take forward the intention and ambition of the Assembly, which it showed last week when it passed with an overwhelming number — and would have done even on a cross-community basis, even though it was not subject to that threshold — an amendment to put money into the Budget this week to rectify the issue of the premia at St Mary's. Mr Allister, like ourselves, was trying to do something innovative in the Assembly by amending the motion. Our amendment, unlike yours, Mr Allister, was not accepted, although it seems to me that the broad principles were the same. I accept the ruling of the Speaker in that regard.

As I indicated to the Minister of Education earlier, whilst purdah, which will kick in on perhaps 20 March, may not be applicable to the Assembly per se, the spirit of purdah may be applicable to the Assembly in that it should inform Ministers in the Executive about decisions that they might take that might otherwise have an impact on the forthcoming Westminster election.

Given that we have 40 days and nights until purdah or the spirit of purdah may kick in and that a paper on the matter is meant to go to the Executive this week, how does the Minister see that matter being resolved? It is a matter of resolving it now, given the ambition of last week's motion, the short time frame that we may be working within and the fact that the worst outcome would be for no decision to be taken before the spirit of purdah kicks in so that the two colleges had to face the music at the beginning of the next financial year. I ask the Minister to deal with that.

Mr Lyttle: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: From where did the amendment propose taking the £1 million?

Mr Attwood: There was no proposal to take the money from anywhere. There was a proposal — unlike that of Mr Allister, who tries to create a reduction in the Budget line — whereby we sought to increase the Budget line by £1 million, which I believe is within the Minister of Finance's competence to recommend to the House. However, that matter is now past because the amendment was not accepted by the Speaker.

My second point is this: I have chosen not to speak on environment issues to any great degree in the House since leaving my position as Environment Minister, because there is a new Minister. The new Minister has to find his feet and show his authority, both of which he has done over the last 18 months. However, now is the time to speak about issues that impact on the Ministry that I once held, the first of which is that people should read the Vote on Account and they read the headline purpose of the Department of the Environment:

"To protect, conserve and enhance the natural environment and built heritage and support ... sustainable development ... in a ... way which will contribute to a better environment and which is modern and responsive to the community ... to reduce road deaths and serious injuries and ... support a system of effective local government".

That is the character and content of the Department of the Environment. I have to say to the Minister that the consequence of the Vote on Account is to, in multiple ways, run the severe risk of undermining all of that.

Let me give you some examples. The Minister, when he was a Back-Bencher, tabled a motion in the Chamber about heritage-led developments. So, here we are, 'Waiting for Godot', waiting for corporation tax perhaps to be amended and for the jobs that may be created on the far side of that. Meanwhile, report after report in other jurisdictions, including ours, shows that the potential for heritage-led development in Northern Ireland is immense. If it were to go anywhere near creating the number of jobs that it has in Dublin or Scotland, we would create many, many thousands of jobs. That was a motion that the Minister proposed in the House some time ago. The consequence of the Budget and the Vote on Account is to undermine heritage-led development. I ask the Minister to advise us how he reconciles the present situation with what he said when he, rightly, proposed that motion and recently allocated moneys under monitoring rounds to DOE for that purpose.

Secondly, the DOE's environmental crime unit has around 30 staff. Nobody disputes that, while it has been enhanced since before I was Minister, it still needs more resources. How will the environmental crime unit deal with the huge threat of environmental crime, given that it is a lead policing agency, in effect, on environmental crime? How is it, Minister, meant to deal with what we discovered in Derry — I see that there are not that many Members from Derry in the House — a couple of years ago, when £50 million was taken by organised crime from an illegal waste dump two miles from Derry? Yet nobody — not planning, the Department of the Environment, the police, the Organised Crime Task Force or the Serious Organised Crime Agency — knew about it. Nobody knew about the biggest illegal waste dump ever found in these islands. The environmental crime unit is now tasked with going after those who are responsible for that immense and horrendous crime, whoever they are, and I have certain views on who they are. How can the environmental crime unit do all that when the consequence of the Vote on Account is that up to one third of DOE staff might lose their job, separate from the members of staff who are going to the councils?

We have a situation in which, as the Minister will recall, close to £50 million was given to councils, of which £30 million was negotiated to try to mitigate the consequences of government reorganisation, given that some parties imposed the model of 11 rather than 15 councils. How can it be that, on the one hand, we give to the councils to mitigate the costs of local government reform, yet, on the other hand, take away from them by not giving to those councils in areas of disadvantage all the rates support that they might otherwise have been entitled to? I ask the Minister this: given what is happening with budget lines on rates relief and general moneys going to the DOE for heritage-led development, how can that Department be expected to achieve the ambition of its mandate, which I read out earlier, when those are the consequences that it will have to live with next year?

Mr Byrne: Thanks for giving way. Does the Member accept that the whole reform of local government and the functions to be delegated are potentially severely impaired, given the cutbacks in the budgetary position?

Mr Attwood: In my view, the fact that we have 11 rather than 15 councils and that rates support is at risk in the way that it is and so on creates further difficulties for councils going forward; of that there is no doubt.

I have two final points for the Minister. The way in which you will deal with regional disadvantage should be tracked through the Vote on Account and the Budget. Look at what was said last week by one of our best entrepreneurs. He said that 35,000 jobs had been created in new industry and IT, but they have been created in Belfast. That situation will be compounded by corporation tax, unless it is done in a very discerning and regionally balanced way. How will we track through the Vote on Account and all the Budgets to come —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member's time is almost up.

Mr Attwood: — the issue of regional imbalance? The risk is that that imbalance will deepen on the far side of corporation tax being devolved.

Mr B McCrea: Part of the problem with the process is a lack of transparency. At the last meeting of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, we were presented with tabled papers from the Clerk of the Committee for Finance and Personnel setting out some attempt at reconciling the Main Estimates with the spring Supplementary Estimates. I asked for an explanation of some of the numbers, and we tried to rush something through. However, it proved quite difficult to do the reconciliation at the time. I have questions for the Minister of Finance and Personnel that refer to the document. I note that, originally, in the Main Estimates, the proposed capital expenditure for DCAL was some £90 million, but, as we transit through the year, we manage to lose £63 million of capital expenditure. I went off and had a look at it. Obviously, some of that will be to do with the difficulties with Casement Park, but the response to the June monitoring round declares an easement for the stadiums amounting to £35 million, which is only half of the subsequent easement. The point that I am making is this: it seems difficult to hold an intelligent discussion on this when we cannot get proper information in a timely fashion.

I did not get a chance to talk about it in other debates, because time did not permit, but I will take the opportunity here as a member of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure to say that, when we talk about looking forward for money on account, I do not think that we have had the proper argument about the value that culture, arts and leisure have for our society. The proposed reductions in budgets or in the monitoring rounds do not reflect that point.

4.45 pm

I am also struck by some of the things that have come through as capital bids. Capital bids for something called "City of Culture legacy" come up repeatedly in the Committee, and I had to ask for details on it. I am fully supportive of the City of Culture and all the good work that has gone on up there, but what exactly was the capital expenditure for, and how did we manage to roll in £2·8 million? It turns out that that will include the provision for the tales of the North Coast Sports Village, a boxing programme worth £2·14 million and other projects in the north-west that amount to £675,000. In other words, things get lumped together under a "legacy for the City of Culture" that, frankly, might bear a bit more investigation. So much of what is in the figures makes it difficult to work out what is going on.

I want to move off the specific issue of DCAL and look at a reconciliation between the Main Estimates and the spring Supplementary Estimates. A number of figures jump out. Well, actually, they do not really jump out. You have to look at them to see what they mean, because a number here and there does not seem to make that much difference, but it is actually quite large. Why, for example, did we start off in the Minister's Department — DFP — with the Main Estimates proposing capital expenditure of £21 million and end up spending £55 million, an uplift of some £30 million? Presumably that is part of the value-for-money purchasing of properties or some sort of thing. The Minister will have the opportunity to deal with that issue, but one could be forgiven for thinking that you said, "What are we going to do with £30 million? I know: we'll go and buy something". I am not sure that we are getting real value for money on this. This is my opportunity to ask about the reconciliation, and that is one question that I put to you.

Equally, I heard in the Minister's opening speech about the need to give extra funding to the Department of Health in comparison with the Main Estimates. I look at this starting with the easier bit about capital. Capital actually fell from a projected spend of £233 million to £220 million, a loss of £13 million. It seems strange that Health is unable to spend the capital that has been allocated to it, given that we put such a priority on it. I have no detail on this, because I am not in the Department, but, against that, the resource expenditure has increased from £4,660 million to £4,754 million. That is a really significant uplift. Is that part of the baseline figures, is that sustainable and is it part of the money that has been obtained from the Westminster Government as part of the Stormont House talks? Is that sustainable, or are we going to see draconian cuts in our health revenue budgets? There have been reports on this, and I wonder what it will mean for our baseline figures. We obviously have to do something with the reconciliation.

Whilst I am on the subject of figures that are circa £100 million here and £100 million there, as the saying goes, with £100 million here and £100 million there, when you add them up, pretty soon you are talking about real money. They are really significant sums of money. DRD has a capital reduction from £506 million to £401 million: that is draconian. I thought that DCAL had suffered a real shock when it lost £63 million, but it appears that DRD was able to better that.

The real issue is how we provide proper control if we are asked to reconcile those figures. Those are huge capital swings.

It may well be — the Minister will, no doubt, come back and tell me this — that all of this is taken care of in the Departments for which I am not on a scrutinising Committee and by the Committee for Finance and Personnel. Nevertheless, we seem, in this House, to focus on minutiae. The debate put forward about Ashers or the sums of money in that amendment actually pale into insignificance when you look at the amount of money that we are being asked to put aside. We do not, in this House, get into enough detail to really hold the Minister of Finance to account. I am not saying for one minute that he is not doing a good job; he set out in his opening statement how difficult the financial position has been and what he has had to do, but most of it has just passed us by, because it is far too easy to play the politics of optics. We want to go and fight on something that may be on 'The Stephen Nolan Show' or on the news or whatever. This is about reconciling the expenditure that we planned to make, not just one year ago, with where we have actually ended up. Frankly, the swings are really quite exceptional.

When it comes to having a look at this information, I do not know how many times we have had debates in the House, coming from the Committee for Finance and Personnel and from other Members here, saying that we need greater transparency, we need information in a timely fashion and we need to have a system where we can really understand what is going on, because, as the Minister said, the fiscal position is likely to tighten over the coming years, and one of the best predictors that we have about our future performance is how we performed in the past. Minister, on the basis of the information here, if we had had more time, I think that the questions would have been a lot harder. I really hope that you will treat my questions with respect and that you will try to answer them, because it will be to your advantage if we can explain to the electorate of Northern Ireland how we move money about for the betterment of all people.

Mr McCallister: I have been here for a good part of the debate. I listened to Mr Sammy Wilson's points, and it is important to remind Members and to remind the House that, if it were not for the subvention coming from Westminster, we would have real financial problems. The idea from Sinn Féin that somehow austerity is the price of being in the Union makes us all think what real austerity would have been like in the Republic of Ireland and what it has had to endure in the last number of years that we have been largely shielded from, at times when health spending has been protected and when, in UK terms, more money has been given to education, and we have had Barnett consequentials out of that. That is a very different position to be in from that faced by our friends in the Republic of Ireland during the last seven or eight years.

Far from it being the price of being in the Union, it was a blessing to be in it and to have that tax base of £60 million, that population and that part in one of the largest economies in the world. I say to colleagues and to the Minister's party that, sometimes when they put pressure on and somehow think that more should be coming from Westminster or that with more money coming we should be spending more and then claiming that we are a low-tax Assembly, that that, somehow, is almost not being in the real world of recognising where the money is coming from.

Some of the points that I would like to raise in the debate are around how the Minister gets that collective response for the Executive and how they get that shared vision. We are effectively voting in money that will keep the wheels of government turning with no real Programme for Government or it being extended. What are our targets? Where are we going with any of this? We have money under the Stormont House Agreement coming for shared education with no great vision as to what exactly that will look like or be. We have a voluntary exit scheme, and the Minister will be aware that, at the last Budget debate, I proposed that the Minister should publish a plan on what he is going to do, and I would still like that. That would include what he is going to do if, in this Budget term, he does not achieve his target or does not draw down that entire £200 million in this period. There are all types of questions around this Budget and the direction and where we are going in collective Government.

I move to some of the other issues raised during the debate. Mr Lyttle talked extensively about almost a black hole in the Department for Regional Development with regard to water charging and how we might move forward. To be fair to the Alliance Party, the reality is that some of these issues, whether water, prescriptions or changes in tuition fees, should be on the table. I said at the last Budget debate that I would have no difficulty in considering issues like that but that I want to know and to have the confidence that this Administration has the ability to spend money wisely and has a coherent direction and purpose to use any additional money from taxes or charges on the ratepayers. There is one difficult decision that the Alliance Party has put off, and that is the decision on when to leave this Executive. It needs to face up to that, and only it can decide that for itself. I suspect that the Minister would happily help it to come to that decision, and others are in the same position.

I listened to Alex Attwood talk about the model of councils and the difficulty and pressures that that is putting on development. He explained why he disagrees with the model and why we should have gone for 15. Was he not the Minister when some of the legislation was starting to be brought in? Was it not his successor and party colleague who completed that task? Where is that collective responsibility? Until we get to some sort of united vision from this Executive, we will struggle to do any of the reforms that the Minister has talked about to make local government mean something and function. Two or three parties in the Executive are against this reform and that reform, and three parties are against the Budget. All of those things keep on repeating and making this place look like a dysfunctional Executive and Assembly.

That is the core of our problem. It is why this Minister will struggle to deliver. I believe the Minister and that he is genuine and sincere when he says that he wants to see public sector reform. Sometimes, I take issue with him in that he is maybe only doing it because of pressure from the UK Government, but, setting that aside, I think that he is sincere in wanting to change the way that public services are delivered. He will struggle, because every time that any Minister goes to do something, there is a sectoral interest or a party interest that gets in the way. Whether it is the St Mary's and Stranmillis debate, the building of the A5 or whatever it happens to be, there is not a collective will from this Executive to deliver on anything.

That is where the struggle is and where he comes into difficulty. That is where the First Minister is right when he says that this is dysfunctional. That is why you have the Alliance criticising but putting off its difficult decision to leave the Executive. It is why the SDLP criticises and stays in the Executive. It is why the UUP criticises and stays in the Executive. Until they all decide that we have had enough of this or that we can have an alternative vision, we will struggle on with that.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. I am listening respectfully to his contribution. In seven minutes of criticising everybody else, I think that I have yet to hear a single, solitary contribution on how he would do any of this differently. Will he use the next three minutes to make any such proposals?

Mr McCallister: I am happy to. I think that, on more than one occasion, he has heard me talking about this. I have said that you need to get to a collective Cabinet Government. You need a Cabinet and an Executive that actually stand for something and which have purpose, direction and meaning. Mr Lyttle is putting out suggestions. I have already accepted that I would agree with some of them, if the Executive could prove that they could use money wisely; but he is part of the problem as long as he sits in that Executive. He sits in it and votes against the Budget. You cannot do that. In trying to normalise democracy, you cannot take those two positions. You cannot ride two horses at once without getting a bad injury.

5.00 pm

On Mr Allister's amendment in relation to the Equality Commission, I would probably prefer to see us moving more like our colleagues across the water and have equality and human rights commissions merged into one entity. I know that junior Minister Bell may be bringing forward legislation about the good relations part of the Community Relations Council (CRC) moving into the Equality Commission. Although I disagree with the Equality Commission's decision on the Ashers bakery case, we start to move and change things like this at our peril or by acting on a whim. I remind Members that at times we have agreed. Others have agreed with the Equality Commission, perhaps on the wearing of the poppy, and certainly over the naming of the Raymond McCreesh park in Newry. The Equality Commission challenged that and forced the council to run a public consultation and vote on it again.

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

Those are the challenges that face the Minister and the Executive. No matter how well-intentioned, the challenge is to get a coherent purpose and direction to the Executive while it continues in being for the next 14 or 15 months.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Mr Allister: A number of things have struck me about the debate, but it was certainly a reminder that the Alliance Party does not do irony, because Ms Lo told us that the amendment was an abuse of power. If Ms Lo is looking for an abuse of power, I suggest that she looks at the most capricious, malevolent action taken by the Equality Commission against Ashers bakery. There, she will certainly find an abuse of power.

Then Mr McKay told us that the amendment was juvenile. There is nothing juvenile about speaking up against, and voting against, suppression of freedom of conscience.

Speaking of juvenile, what do I say of the contribution by Mr Gregory Campbell? I suggested in my intervention that his strange stance showed that he was smarting about something. The Member has a bit of conscience in there too. We had an outburst from him, largely, I think, against me personally. Indeed, he kept digging, to the point where he got down to the level of suggesting that he seemed to have an issue with me earning a living to raise my family. I cannot really help him on that, but I can say this: to talk about there being no point in doing it and how I always knew that there would be a petition of concern — [Interruption.]

I thought the part-time Member had himself run away, but he has returned. [Interruption.]

Mr Allister: I wonder has he told Mr Givan — [Interruption.]

— that there is really no point in his conscience clause because there might be a petition of concern. If something is right and worth doing, you do it.

Mr Campbell: What about last year?

Mr Allister: Of course, he tells us that this is not the time and not the place. What a short memory he has. He was one of those on the DUP Benches who, back in the early days of the Assembly, in budgetary matters, tabled an amendment to reduce the funding to the North/South bodies, knowing that section 64 meant that it could not succeed and had to have cross-community support — but it was the right thing to do.

It was tabled, and he voted for it, as did Mr Wilson. I think Mr Campbell's problem is this: who proposed this move and who thought about it? I think that if it had come from a different source, he might have had a different attitude. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I remind Members that all remarks should be made through the Chair. Mr Allister, continue.

Mr Allister: Then we had Mr Wilson, who, before the debate started, was able to indicate outside the House that he would vote for the amendment. That seems to have been before the thought police of his Benches got to him. He ended up making a cop-out speech, again about the petition of concern and all that business. He then told us, "But we have already done the job. We have reduced the Equality Commission's budget". Good, but is the Minister going to tell the House that he reduced the budget because of Ashers? Of course not. It was part of a generic reduction across a number of bodies.

Mr Campbell: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: I will give way when I have finished.

It was part of a generic reduction amongst a number of bodies. The truth is this: even with the reduction, it patently still has too much money, otherwise it would not be persecuting Ashers. I just do not understand the paper soldiers who are prepared to go round the country, quite properly, campaigning for a conscience clause but who are not prepared to walk through the Lobbies to attack the same Equality Commission.

Mr Campbell: I thank the Member for giving way. He alludes now, quite properly, to the reduction in the budget to various Departments, including the one that he intimated. Why did he not intimate that reduction in the press release at the weekend? Why was that accurate information about the reduction that the Minister already negotiated and agreed on not referred to in his original press release on Friday?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Allister: I am grateful.

With all due respect, I will not be taking advice on press releases from Mr Campbell. [Interruption.]

Mr Allister: I think that his mention of the press release and that it made the front page of the 'News Letter' reveals what Mr Campbell's problem is. That is why he is smarting. The reason is that someone would dare to think of something that he belatedly wishes he had thought of and had taken action on. Now, with a churlish attitude to the matter, he will help Sinn Féin to ensure that this tangible effort against the Equality Commission fails.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Would the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Mr Allister: Well done, Sinn Féin. Well done, DUP.

Mr Lyttle: Will the Member give way?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. The Member's time is up.

Mr Hamilton: I thank all Members, and I mean that, for their contributions to the debate, particularly those who spoke on behalf of their Committee. As Mr Wilson said, I am not sure that everybody adhered to the strictures of the debate. I am not sure whether I will in my response either, I have to say. I will, though, attempt to respond as fully as possible to as many of the relevant issues as possible in the time that is allocated to me for my winding-up speech.

At this stage, I acknowledge the confirmation by the Chair of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, Mr McKay, that there has been appropriate consultation with the Committee on the spending plans that are reflected in these motions and that it is content that the Budget Bill, which I plan to introduce immediately after this debate, may proceed by accelerated passage. I thank him and the Committee for all the work that they have done to scrutinise the progress of the Budget to date. I very much appreciate that assistance.

I will turn now, if I can, to issues that were raised. First of all, because it is fresh, I will address, if I can, the amendment that is tabled in the name of Mr Allister. I will begin by reiterating comments that Mr Campbell and, indeed, Mr Wilson made when they addressed Mr Allister's amendment. Those comments supported the general criticism that Mr Allister levelled in his remarks, whether they were made in the Chamber or, indeed, in press statements about the Equality Commission.

He will find no dispute from me or indeed any colleagues on this side of the House about the criticisms that he levels at the Equality Commission in respect of its size, the troubling community imbalance in its own employment or, indeed, the Ashers case. In fact, he will find common accord with many Members on this side of the House, elsewhere in the Chamber and outside in respect of those comments. It is interesting, though, as Mr Campbell said, that whilst many of those issues, particularly the size of the Equality Commission and its long-standing community employment imbalance, which Mr Campbell has highlighted continuously in the House down through the years, were the subject of Mr Allister's criticisms, they were never subject to the tactic that he deployed today, which is a tactic that he could have deployed in any previous debate.

In short, Mr Allister's amendment is the wrong amount, the wrong way at the wrong time. I will explain why. Mr Allister prides himself on his attention to detail. However, on this occasion, he is badly wrong. He proposes to reduce the budget of the Equality Commission — I will get to why he actually is not reducing the budget of the Equality Commission — by £250,000 and not by the £500,000 that he suggested in the aforementioned press statement.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Hamilton: I will give way, yes.

Mr Allister: The Member should know that I tabled two amendments. The first was to the Supplementary Estimates at £500,000, which the Speaker, in his wisdom, saw fit not to accept; and the other amendment, which the Speaker saw fit to accept. It is no fault of mine that both amendments are not before the House.

Mr Hamilton: Let me read from the statement that you issued to the press and which was covered by the press. You said that you had:

"tabled a proposal to remove £500,000".

That is not what you are doing today and not what you are able to achieve. The Member is not reducing the budget by £500,000; the Member has got his sums wrong. What he proposes is the wrong way of doing it. I have received legal advice that questions the ability of the Assembly to accept the amendment as it is potentially in breach of section 63 of the 1998 Act. I intend to take that issue up with the Speaker as I do not think that it should happen again. Regardless of that, had the amendment been competent, it would not have reduced the Equality Commission's budget.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order to suggest than an amendment is not competent when it has been ruled competent by the Speaker? Is it possible to do that without challenging the authority of the Speaker?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I thank the Member for raising that point. His views have been recorded for the benefit of Hansard.

Mr Hamilton: I am quite happy to stand over the remarks that I made. I have great difficulty in taking lectures on questioning the Chair from Mr Allister. There are many things that I can be lectured on, but one of the lectures that I will not take in the House is being admonished by Mr Allister for questioning the Chair. How many times has he been silenced in the House?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Can I encourage the Minister to come back to the debate in question?

Mr Hamilton: You can, Deputy Speaker.

Let us reiterate the point: had the amendment been competent, in my view, it could not have reduced the Equality Commission's budget anyway, which was Mr Allister's intention. The Vote on Account is a small document; it is not as bad as the Estimates in terms of its volume. It has one spending line for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Member's amendment seeks to reduce its allocation to the Equality Commission; however, there are no specific allocations for OFMDFM, just as there are no specific allocations for any Department. The Vote on Account provides, in effect, a cash float for Departments to get through the early part of the financial year. It is about 45% of the spending that they will be permitted, but it does not have a specific Equality Commission line and so it would reduce the overall OFMDFM budget by £250,000. It does not specifically reduce the Budget —

5.15 pm

Mr Allister: Very good.

Mr Hamilton: The Member is saying, "good". He knows fine well that a substantial amount of the funding of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister goes to victims and survivors' services. That sort of reduction could have affected negatively also victims and survivors' services. He is sitting there shouting "good" from a sedentary position about a Budget cut to a Department that funds victims and survivors' services. That is well noted.

Mr Allister: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hamilton: No, I am not going to give way. What the Member is doing, through the amendment that he has put forward, because of the £250,000 that would be taken off, is affecting our ability to draw down from the Consolidated Fund, which is, in effect, the bank account that we have that the block grant goes into. He would deprive the whole Executive of £250,000 as well. The Member is basically wanting to send £250,000 back to the Treasury, so he wants to deprive the people of Northern Ireland of money that they are owed.

Mr Allister: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hamilton: I will give way.

Mr Allister: Would the Minister say the same, then, of when his party tried to do exactly the same, some years ago, in the days when it opposed the apparatus of the Belfast Agreement?

Mr Hamilton: That was long before my time, of course.

Mr Campbell: It was when he was away. He had walked away.

Mr Hamilton: Yes, that is right; he was still in the wilderness at that stage. He was on his hiatus.

Mr Allister: You were in a different party.

Mr Hamilton: Not at that stage; I was not in a different party. The Member was on his hiatus at that point in time. My understanding is that the attempt to reduce the Budget at that time was ruled out of order by the Speaker or the amendment was not taken.

Mr Allister: It was voted on.

Mr Hamilton: I am happy to go and look back at it.

The Member has also brought forward his amendment at the wrong time. That was a point made by Mr Campbell and Mr Wilson. If the Member had wished to do what he wanted to do — I am sure that there is a degree of sympathy, at least in terms of the intention of what he wishes to do — the time to have done it would have been a fortnight ago, when the Assembly was debating the Budget for next year. The 2015-16 Budget was before the House and amendments were put forward, for example, by the Ulster Unionist Party. I criticised those and voted against them, but at least an attempt was made to adjust the Budget in a particular way that that party wanted. I disagreed with that attempt, and the House disagreed with it, but at least an attempt was made by the Ulster Unionist Party, at the appropriate time, to adjust the Budget to withdraw expenditure, in that case, from the social investment fund and move it to a range of other areas, the likes of the Department for Regional Development and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. At least it specified, in its amendment, which failed, and which I disagreed with, where the money was coming from and going to. Had that been passed, it would have adjusted the Budget for next year. It would have been successful, and would have achieved that party's aim. Mr Allister, of course, did not take the opportunity at that time, which would have been the right time to do it. Instead, what did he actually do a fortnight ago? He voted against that Budget.

Mr Allister: I voted against the squander.

Mr Hamilton: He voted against a Budget —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order, Members. This is meant to be a debate; it is not a conversation. Could all remarks be made through the Chair, please?

Mr Hamilton: Whatever the Member thought he was voting against, he also actually voted against a 7% reduction in the budget of the Equality Commission. The 2015-16 Budget — significantly, agreed by the Executive, Sinn Féin, the DUP and subsequently agreed by this House — includes a 7% reduction, from the £427,000 in the expenditure for the Equality Commission. That is what the outworkings of that Budget are for the Equality Commission. So, Jim — Mr Allister — voted against a £427,000 reduction in the budget for the Equality Commission. He now comes forward and tries to reduce it by £250,000, after having voted to keep its budget increased by £427,000. Some of us are a bit confused as to why he would now wish to reduce its budget by only £250,000, when an opportunity was presented to him a fortnight ago to reduce it by £427,000.

I would have thought that, given his rallying cry against the Equality Commission in his contribution at the beginning of the debate, he would have been more than happy to vote for a reduction of £427,000 to its budget, but he voted against it. If the Member wanted, as he said in his opening remarks, to rebuke the Equality Commission, there was ample opportunity to do so by voting for a reduction of 7% or £427,000 in its budget a fortnight ago. Instead, Mr Allister trooped through the Lobby to keep the Equality Commission's budget in place. He wanted to keep that money there instead of voting against it.

Everybody knows that Mr Allister's amendment today is a stunt that was doomed to fail. There was always going to be a petition of concern against it. He does not care about that, of course. That does not bother him. He just wants to sit there beating his chest and styling himself as the man who tried to reduce the Equality Commission's budget, when he had not a chance of doing so.

Mr Allister: You are the man who will not support it.

Mr Hamilton: Let me tell you what I am, Mr Allister, and what everybody on these Benches is: we are the people who have reduced the budget of the Equality Commission by £427,000. You are the man who sits there unable to do anything because your stunt has been exposed for what it is. There is a petition of concern, and you are unable, Mr Allister, to reduce the budget of the Equality Commission by a penny. Yet we have reduced it in the only way that we can —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask the Minister to make his remarks through the Chair, please

Mr Hamilton: — through the proper Budget process and by getting agreement with Sinn Féin. We have reduced its budget by £427,000.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for giving way. Notwithstanding the possibility that I might agree with some of his earlier criticisms of the Equality Commission, will he add some common sense to his exchange with Mr Allister by acknowledging the work that the Equality Commission does in the areas of fair employment and disability-related discrimination in this community, rather than just fighting with him over who can reduce its budget by the most?

Mr Hamilton: I do not discount all the work done by the Equality Commission as meaningless. I agree with the concerns expressed by Mr Campbell, Mr Wilson and, indeed, Mr Allister about its size, the community imbalance in its workforce and, particularly, its recent overreach in the Ashers' case. If Mr Allister's intention, however — I draw this point to a close — was to offer a rebuke by reducing the budget of the Equality Commission, he would have done better to come through the Lobby with Members on this side of the House a fortnight ago and vote for the only proposition that was able to do so. Mr Allister is completely unable to achieve his aim and was always going to be unable to do so. He has failed in his objective, and he should have voted with those of us who reduced the Equality Commission's budget by £427,000. Mr Allister has been unable to reduce the budget of the Equality Commission by a penny.

I move on to comments made by the Chairs of Committees. On behalf of the Justice Committee, Alastair Ross raised concerns about the ongoing legal aid pressure faced by the Department of Justice. I understand that next year's pressure is over £20 million, and I agree with the Minister that there is a need for further reform. The Minister of Justice has put forward a range of proposals and written to Executive colleagues. He knows that he has my support and that of some colleagues, and I hope that the Executive will be able to agree the reforms in the weeks ahead. Whilst I think that the House would agree that the policing budget is the most significant front-line pressure facing the Department — it received an uplift of £20 million specifically to address policing pressures — legal aid is a pressure nonetheless. I support the Minister in putting forward those reforms.

Dominic Bradley laboured local government reform during his comments and reiterated his point that the transfer of functions should be rates-neutral. I have left it for each Minister to decide the amount to transfer to local government. There are individual issues in different parts of the country. There are issues in the north-west with Derry and Strabane council, and I am meeting members of that council tomorrow. I understand that reductions have now been communicated to local government in respect of the rate support grant, and it is entirely a matter for the Minister of the Environment what he wants to do with the grant.

The fundamental point that I would make to Mr Bradley if he were here — I hope that he picks up the point via Hansard — is this: he seemed to be arguing to the House that local government should be a protected species at a time when the public sector faces significant spending pressures. The Minister of the Environment's budget is being cut by over 10%; my Department's budget is being cut by 10%; the Minister for Social Development's budget is being cut by close to 10%; DCAL's budget is being cut by around 8%; and there are many more. At a time when those Departments face those pressures, his argument that local government should somehow be exempt from any spending reductions at all is simply not something that I agree with. Worryingly, the SDLP seems to want to give local government every penny it asks for. The Executive have been exceptionally generous to local government during the reform process. It has been a challenging and difficult time for local government, but the Executive have set aside close to £15 million to ease reform for local government. Stormont coffers have supported local government in that reform even though the benefits of the savings in the longer term will accrue not to Stormont but to local government. We have been incredibly generous to councils, which will benefit from the savings in the longer term.

Finally in respect of Mr Bradley's comments, it is the age-old comment that I feel that I have to make to the SDLP in the House. They ask for more money for this, that and the other but never come forward with a single proposition as to where that money should come from. At least others come forward with ideas, which, in many cases, I do not agree with, but they do come forward with a way to make the sums add up. The SDLP just seems to want more money for everything, whatever anybody asks for, and offers no way at all for that to be paid for.

Judith Cochrane from the Alliance Party talked about how reform in Northern Ireland was not radical. She was critical of the lack of reform in education and health. In many ways, what we have before us is the most ambitious and challenging set of reforms that we have had in the history of Northern Ireland. I do not want to labour too many of them, but look at the likes of the proposed reduction in corporation tax and the impact that that will have on and the reform that it will bring to the economy; the workforce restructuring that we are undergoing and our ambitious plans to reduce the size of the public sector and our dependency on it; and government reorganisation, such as a reduction from 12 Departments to nine, particularly creating a Department of the economy. For not just this place, where it is sometimes hard to agree radical reforms, but for any Administration, we have a set of —

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for giving way. I take his point about reform. Will he support the proposed reforms by the Minister for Employment and Learning to teacher training? If not, why not?

Mr Hamilton: I accept that there are issues about teacher training and how it is done in Northern Ireland. It is an area of third-level education in which we produce many more graduates in a specialised field than we require as a Government. Our education system does not need that many, so there is certainly work to be done in that regard in reducing costs. That work needs to be done and reform is required, but I do not agree with the very blunt tool that the Minister seeks to use or the way in which he wishes to achieve it. I think that that is broadly the view around the House and outside. I am happy to work with the Minister for Employment and Learning on the issue, as I am in respect of the future funding of third-level education in Northern Ireland. I want to engage with the Minister on that in the longer term. However, you do not achieve the aims of properly reforming teacher training in Northern Ireland by using a blunt tool that, in effect, will put both colleges out of business in short order.

In closing that point, I think we have a set of radical reforms that we are taking forward. If you look at them collectively, you will see that they are ambitious and, indeed, challenging reforms that will transform positively our economy and our government into the future.

5.30 pm

Mr Ó Muilleoir, who has arrived back in the Chamber, talked about the possible impact on our economy and on the confidence in our economy and how, if cuts happen in public spending, they might impact on an economic recovery. Our economic recovery is still in its tentative, early stages. We have had over a year of growth in the economy. The unemployment claimant count has reduced for two years in a row and there are lots of positive signs in the economy, but I do not think anybody will be cheering just yet that it is embedded and secure. It is, in some parts, vulnerable. I appreciate fully that — particularly in an economy like ours, which is so dependent on public spending — when public spending is reduced or certain Departments see significant reductions, even if the total figure is not being reduced by that much, it can have an impact on confidence. That is why it is important that we set the right tone in everything that we say in this place or, indeed, outside this place. We need to be honest with people. We need to say to people very clearly that we have tough times now, next year and, indeed, in the years ahead but we are doing our best to ensure that the allocations that we make — I think that this is reflected in the 2015-16 Budget — will support and protect key public services like health and education and that, by investing in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and significantly boosting the allocation to Employment and Learning, we are trying to underpin that economic growth. Even though there is less spending in some areas, the key areas that are there to drive our economy forward, to get people into work and to get investment flowing are being supported and protected by the Executive.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hamilton: Yes, very briefly.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Minister comment on the Ulster Bank survey that has just come out, which shows that there is pressure on a number of our industrial sectors, including manufacturing, construction and retail; that it is only in the service sector that are we showing any real growth; and that therefore we have to find ways to encourage the broad-based recovery of our economy?

Mr Hamilton: The Ulster Bank PMI is one of the indicators that had been viewed as a sign of how bad our economy was during the crisis, but about 18 months ago it started to move in the right direction. We have had about 18 months of good PMIs coming from the Ulster Bank survey. The last couple have shown some more worrying and troubling indications. It is interesting that the comments from the chief economist at the Ulster Bank are that this is more of a blip and the increase in activity across a range of sectors, indeed all sectors, had been so markedly upward that it was bound to go down a little bit at some stage. Clearly, if that develops in the wrong direction over a longer period, there will be more cause for concern. In some ways I am not surprised — maybe a little surprised that manufacturing has not done well this month or last month. As we know, construction and retail have been struggling throughout the crisis and still lag behind. Construction does so for obvious reasons around the property market and the availability of cheap or available finance. Retail has been affected both by the downturn and by changes in retail habits that, I think, are now probably having a bigger impact on retail than the crisis. It is certainly something worth monitoring, although I take some solace from the fact that Ulster Bank says that it does not see it as the beginning of a spiral downwards or anything like that.

In his capacity of Chair of the Culture Committee, Nelson McCausland talked about the reduced requirement in respect of regional stadia. Mr McCrea mentioned that as well. I will try my best to come to the specific points that he made. It is disappointing that that money was not able to be spent in-year. I have given the Minister an assurance that, should it be needed for the regional stadia programme, her Department will have the first call on capital in future monitoring rounds. Mr McCausland also mentioned the Ulster Orchestra. I am very, very pleased that we were able to make an allocation of £500,000 to the orchestra in the January monitoring round. That is reflected in the Estimates that are before us today. I appreciate and understand that, its immediate future having been secured, further work has to be done on securing the Ulster Orchestra's longer-term future. Work is ongoing between my Department's officials and, primarily, DCAL officials to do that.

Mr Fearghal McKinney talked, as he tends to do in these debates, rightly so, in respect of health spending.

It is spending close to half of our Budget, after all, and perhaps should be talked about a little bit more in these debates. Mr McKinney, not unusually, was not speaking glowingly about what the NHS in Northern Ireland is doing. In fact, he said that some £80 million that was additionally allocated to the Health Department in-year was not spent well.

I am not sure that I would share the conclusion that money spent on the NHS in Northern Ireland is not spent well. When I look at indicators suggesting that Northern Ireland has the best breast cancer survival rate in the whole of the UK, I come to the conclusion that that is money well spent. When I look at the respective reductions of 40% and 18% in MRSA and clostridium difficile infections, I think that that is money well spent. When I see the fall in the standardised death rate as a result of heart attacks down from 79 to 61 per 1,000, I think that that is money well spent. When I see the standardised death rate for people under the age of 75 suffering strokes falling from 14·4% to 12·6%, I think that that is money well spent. When I see employment of doctors up 20% and nurses up 4%, I tend to think that that is money well spent.

I would be the first person to say that not everything is perfect with our NHS in Northern Ireland. It is one of those areas that needs reform and change, but we should not come into this place and we certainly should not go on the airwaves and talk about money not being well spent on the NHS when we all have an understanding, either personally through our families, or our constituents, that there is money being well spent in the NHS in Northern Ireland. Does it get everything right? No, it does not, but it gets a lot right, and it is money well spent. The people who are working in our NHS are making a real difference in people's lives every single day in this country.

Michelle McIlveen, in her capacity as Chair of the Education Committee, raised several queries. The particular one that I can address is around pension revaluation. She is right that the revaluation in the education pension, and indeed other public service pensions, will last for four years. The first year cost in 2015-16 will be covered out of a centralised allocation that was covered in the Budget. She asked a question about future years. It is a matter for the Executive in the context of future Budgets as to how we want to deal with that. The decision will definitely be needed in the next Budget process, which will come post-CSR.

Chris Hazzard mentioned the fact that some 65% of our Budget was being spent on health and education. There are some people, and there may even be some in this place, who want to criticise just two Departments getting two thirds of the entire Budget, but I am not one of those people. It is right and proper that those two key public services, which people in Northern Ireland want their politicians to support, are being supported and are getting the lion's share of public spending in Northern Ireland at some 65%.

Mr Hazzard started well, and then it all went downhill from there. He talked about how austerity is the price of the Union. However, as Mr Wilson and Mr McCallister pointed out, when one looks at the complete collapse in the Southern economy since 2008-09 onwards — thankfully, it is recovering; we need it to recover because, as one of our biggest export markets, we need it to be doing well, and we are glad that it is — the experience over the last five years in the Irish Republic showed us that, while Sinn Féin may wish to argue that austerity is the price of the Union, economic and social collapse in Northern Ireland would be the price of a united Ireland.

While there are people who will argue that there should be more here and more there and that it is not enough overall, Sammy Wilson is absolutely right to point out that what we are able to allocate through these Estimates today as an Executive is greatly inflated because we are part of the United Kingdom. The fiscal transfer that we receive from the rest of the UK allows us to spend £9·6 billion annually more than we raise in tax revenue ourselves. The nature of any state like that is that you have to take the rough with the smooth, and there is undoubtedly some rough to take. However, £9·6 billion of an annual subvention is not a bad deal for the people of Northern Ireland.

Seán Rogers, who has persevered and stayed with us through most of this afternoon, spoke at length about economic development and the link between economic development and education. He is absolutely right: we need a good, strong education system not just at primary and secondary level but, obviously, at third level as well if we are to ensure that our economy continues to grow.

He also called for more investment in education. It is a pity that Mr Rogers's plea for more investment in education did not make its way to his party's Minister, Mr Durkan, who, in the Executive, of course, voted against an allocation of an extra £63 million for education. Perhaps Mr Rogers, instead of coming in here and making good speeches in this Chamber, would do well to convince his party colleague Mr Durkan of the need to support additional allocations for the Department of Education in the Budget.

Mr McGlone, in his capacity as Chair of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, raised many issues, obviously around the DETI budget. I want to point out to the House and to Mr McGlone that the Executive have shown their support for DETI, economic development, job creation and investment in our economy through increasing DETI's budget by 10·4% next year. That is to ensure that the good work in creating and promoting new jobs and attracting investment into Northern Ireland can continue.

At a time when our overall Budget is being reduced by 1·6% in real terms, the fact that we ensured that the DETI budget is up by over 10%, when there were competing concerns such as health, education and other public services looking for more money, shows our commitment to ensuring that that excellent track record continues.

The Estimates before us include a pertinent in-year example of that support. DETI's budget was protected from reductions. In fact, it was slightly increased in-year, again to ensure that Invest Northern Ireland and Arlene Foster are able to go around the world and attract those jobs to Northern Ireland. In fact, she was in Mr Bell's and my constituency just last week, announcing an investment in an agrifoods business to create 55 jobs, so it is not just foreign direct investment. Indigenous firms are growing as well, and that budget increase will help that to continue.

Mr McGlone asked about the industrial guarantee. There are no blank cheques, but I want that support to continue. No worthwhile proposal to create investment or jobs in Northern Ireland will be lost.

Most of Mr Lyttle's comments were about Northern Ireland Water. I am happy to take it up with him at a later stage, but he talked about, I think, projected capital investment in Northern Ireland Water and how it falls short in the run-up to 2021. There is no Budget in place up until 2021, so anything that is there is indicative or whatever it might be. In fact, there is nothing beyond 2016. The last Budget we have is for 2015-16. The CSR will dictate spend probably not even up to 2021.

Over the last four years, £660 million has been invested in our fresh and waste water infrastructure. I am sure we would all like to see that much higher, but the 2011-15 Budget was significant at its outset in hitting the capital budget. We have the flip side of that now, where our resource budget is under pressure. In fact, all projections would suggest that our capital position will improve.

I cannot guarantee that any of that, above and beyond what might be expected, will go to Northern Ireland Water, but in a situation where a marked improvement is projected by the Office for Budget Responsibility in capital investment, we would expect to see a significant volume of that investment go towards Northern Ireland Water.

I thank Mr Lyttle and welcome the fact that, once again, the Alliance Party is making it perfectly clear that it is in support of the introduction of water charges just as it is in support of significant increases in people's rates bills and doing away with free fares for pensioners. I thank the Member for once again putting on public record his party's support for higher water charges, higher rates and doing away with concessionary fares for pensioners.

I regret that Alex Attwood is not here, because he raised several points, and I wanted to respond to him directly. He is right: an amendment in the name of the SDLP was tabled but not accepted. The aforementioned section 63 means that a Budget cannot be amended without my approval. That works on the basis of the principle that only the Executive can ask the Assembly for more money.

5.45 pm

I am not unsympathetic to the thrust of the amendment that was being put forward. Indeed, Mr Attwood did me the courtesy of phoning me last week to talk to me about it. As I said to him when we spoke, which I will put on the record now, it is not that I am unsympathetic to the point that he is making. I will come to how it might be resolved by different means. Section 63 is there, particularly in respect of Assembly Members approving increases in the Budget, for very good safeguarding reasons. Although, Mr Allister's amendment was at least trying to reduce the Budget, Mr Attwood's amendment was trying to increase the Budget. Whether for good causes or not, we cannot have Members coming to the House and proposing increases in expenditure and Budget lines that the Executive cannot afford to meet. That is why that piece of legislation is there.

As I said, I am not unsympathetic to the point he was making around the teacher training colleges, Stranmillis and St Mary's. The First Minister and deputy First Minister have called that issue into the Executive, and I hope that that will deal with the substance of it. If additional funding is required as a result of whatever resolution the Executive agree in respect of all of this matter, that will be dealt with in the in-year monitoring round process.

The Member seemed to have a particular concern around purdah kicking in. I have to say that, over recent elections, I have not seen any Minister respect purdah; perhaps this election will be slightly different. However, I have received no advice that purdah will be an issue in dealing with this matter. If it is dealt with by the Executive in the next number of days, purdah will not be an issue to concern us.

He asked a few questions of me, and I want to address a couple of those. One was around heritage-led development and how I could reconcile the Vote on Account with my support for heritage-led development. The first point is that the Vote on Account does not have a particular line for heritage-led development. That is a point that was misunderstood throughout today's debate, but there is nothing new there in respect of Estimates and Vote on Account debates. Any allocation for h