Official Report: Monday 12 January 2015


The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Mitchel McLaughlin] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before we proceed to today's business, I welcome Members back after the recess.

I inform the House that the Education Bill received Royal Assent on Thursday 11 December 2014. It will be known as the Education Act (Northern Ireland) 2014.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I also inform the House that the Work and Families Bill received Royal Assent on Thursday 8 January 2015. It will be known as the Work and Families (Northern Ireland) Act 2015.

Committee Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I have received the resignation of Mr Alastair Ross as Chairperson of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and that of Paul Givan as Chairperson of the Justice Committee. Mr Alastair Ross has been nominated as Chairperson of the Committee for Justice, and Mr Jimmy Spratt has been nominated as Chairperson of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, both with effect from 10 December 2014.

Matter of the Day

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Danny Kinahan has been given leave to make a statement on the terror attacks in Paris. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their places and continue to do so. All Members called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has been finished.

Mr Kinahan: I welcome this opportunity to speak on this incredibly important matter of the day. We in Northern Ireland are well aware of the brutal realities of terrorism, yet the events in France last week shocked, I am sure, even the most hardened of us. The murderous attacks on the cartoonists and journalists at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine 'Charlie Hebdo' included the murder of two policemen and were followed by the murder of a policewoman and the hostage-taking and murder of four people in a kosher supermarket, also in Paris.

This trail of blood lays bare all the ingredients that make up terrorism in our age: fanaticism, intolerance, sectarianism and, above all, a complete lack of respect for human life.

I am acutely aware that we must not be selective when condemning terrorism. We remember the dreadful attack by the Taliban on the school in Peshawar, which left more than 150 people, many of them children, dead. This weekend in Nigeria, 20 people were killed by Boko Haram female suicide bombers, one of whom was reported to be just 10 years old. This comes after hundreds were reportedly killed by the same militant Islamist group last week.

Whether it is France, Pakistan or Nigeria, terrorism kills innocent people and is a threat to our civilisation.

The Paris attacks were an explicit attack on the freedom of speech, which is the central tenet of liberal democracy. We do not have to search very far for the motivation of the terrorists who struck in Paris; no one should give them any cover by talking of western foreign policy. The terrorists were explicit: they attacked a free press because, in their world view, the cartoonists insulted their religion, and the attack on the Jewish supermarket exposed their sectarian mindset. Anti-Semitism is appalling, as is the spate of attacks on mosques.

Let us, in our condemnation, be very clear: all institutions, including organised religions, should be subject to criticism and satire. 'Charlie Hebdo' ridiculed many institutions and all religions; it is part of the European tradition of satire. There is no absolute right not to be offended; that is something that we in Northern Ireland should always bear in mind. We should also remember the murderous attacks against the 'Belfast Telegraph' by the Provisional IRA, plus the attempted and actual murder of 'Sunday World' journalists by so-called loyalists. Terrorists cannot abide a free press.

A letter writer to 'The Daily Telegraph' said it very well this morning:

"We should show respect for other people, not their beliefs. These should be fully open to criticism, ridicule and opposition."

If we believe in a free society, rather than in a theocracy of any denomination, we must defend the Enlightenment values of free speech, freedom of democracy, liberty, equality and fraternity from all others. If I can apologise for my French, we should all be saying, "Nous sommes Charlie", and I can certainly say, "Je suis Charlie", but also, "Je suis Juif".

Mrs Foster: I join with the rest of the Members who will speak on this motion in fundamentally condemning the attacks that took place over a number of days in Paris and outside Paris.

They came after other attacks on mainland Europe, particularly the attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels. The crimes of the victims in France varied from satire, being Jewish or simply being a police officer on duty that day. A real sense of fear, even through our television screens, came across because there was a sense of the unknown pervading the streets of Paris and elsewhere.

Of course, we are very much aware that Islamic extremists were the perpetrators. Just as in Northern Ireland, where the terrorists did not speak for the community during their worst excesses, very much Islamic terrorists do not represent the Muslim world.

As Enterprise Minister, I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with many from the Muslim world over my period in office and, of course, will continue to do so.

The horrific death toll in Paris, and it is horrific, leads me on to other outrages that have occurred. Those outrages may not have occurred in the Western world, and perhaps that is why they have not had as much attention. In particular, we have heard about Pakistan and what is going on Iraq with the sectarian violence and the violence against Christians and the Yazidis. We have also heard about what is happening in Nigeria, where just last week it is believed that a town was razed to the ground and 2,000 people lost their life. That is an absolutely shocking indictment of what is going on in the world today. More than a million people have been displaced in Nigeria, hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries, and many children have been separated from their parents and simply do not know whether their mothers and fathers are alive or dead.

Back in the United Kingdom, we must be alert and work with the lawful authorities to try to prevent anything similar from happening here. I commend the work of our security services, which are working against those in the shadows and the terrorists. I also appeal to the House to support the work of international agencies to try to deal with horrors in places such as Iraq and Nigeria. A human life is as valuable in Nigeria as it is France and the UK, and I ask the House to reflect that.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Like the rest of the world, we watched with outrage what happened in Paris last week. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I extend my sympathies to all the victims and their families, and we extend our solidarity to the people of France at this very difficult time.

There can be no place for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any form of racism in our societies, whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or here in Ireland. Non au racisme et à la xénophobie. I am saying, "No to racism and xenophobia" in my poor French.

Religion or religious belief is the fig leaf that will be used by some to rationalise the attack on those workers. No grievance or religious slight, no matter how strongly felt, can justify such an attack, and no cause is served by it. Such attacks are also used by some to introduce more oppression and oppressive laws and to attack fundamental freedoms, and that must be resisted.

We are also outraged at what is happening in Nigeria, Iraq, Syria and other parts of the world. Indeed, I visited Gaza not so long ago and saw for myself the pain and suffering of the people there. I do not want anyone in the world to experience such pain and suffering, regardless of where they live and what they believe. My abiding memory of that visit to Gaza is of a meeting with a seven- or eight-year-old girl. We were at her house, which had been destroyed, and her entire family had been wiped out. Like people in France, that little girl also lost her family. I have no doubt that the people of France do not want to see what is happening in Gaza happening anywhere.

French people, through their work with aid agencies, are leading from the front. Médecins Sans Frontières is leading the fight against Ebola, and many French aid agencies are doing very important work throughout the world.

Poverty, inequality and racism, wherever they occur, are unacceptable and have no place in our world. The displays of unity and resolve that we have witnessed since last week's terrible tragedies have been heartening, and, as a lasting tribute to the victims and to all victims of global racism, we must redouble our efforts to resolve conflict. The only way in which to do that is through dialogue.

Dr McDonnell: On behalf of me and my party, the SDLP, I express solidarity with the victims and survivors of the Paris tragedy.

The tragedy that struck the city of Paris, and France as a whole, last week was absolutely awful and unimaginable. Its impact has been felt across Europe and the wider world, and it is compounded by the fact that it was not an act of God or something that was outside our control. It was man-made, planned and absolutely ruthlessly carried out. Seventeen lives were lost in those brutal attacks: 11 people who worked for 'Charlie Hebdo'; four innocent individuals who were shopping in a kosher supermarket; and two police officers.


12.15 pm

People in Northern Ireland can share the pain of the people of Paris and France. The people of Northern Ireland stand in solidarity with, and in support of, the victims of this awful tragedy. We here have known our fair share of suffering and, indeed, in the context of free speech and attacks on journalism. Many of our own journalists were attacked over the years, none more so than Martin O'Hagan who was brutally murdered basically for calling it as he saw it. In the context of empathy with people, we can stand shoulder to shoulder and in total solidarity with those who were killed and injured, as well as their friends and families.

Something caught my eye in the reports on this awful situation. I must pay tribute to a young Muslim man in the kosher supermarket who managed to hide a number of possible hostages or, worse still, probable victims. He managed to hide them in the basement, away from those who would kill or maim them. That, to me, presents a true face of the Muslim community and is more valuable and more significant than those who were doing the attacks in the name of the Muslim community.

We hope that the tragic event that happened last week can unite people in France, people across Europe and, indeed, the people of the world in solidarity against terrorism and violence. There have been estimates that more than 1·5 million people united in Paris over the weekend for the march against hatred and for history. That is positive and very hopeful when we see how they all gathered together with great respect and dignity. Indeed, we had our own small demonstration outside the City Hall at the end of last week. That was useful and positive, and I congratulate all those who took part.

The support that has been shown by world leaders, with 44 of them standing together linking arms, is unprecedented. It goes some way to showing support for the victims of this brutal attack. Terrorism has failed, and it will continue to fail. The people of Paris, France and Europe will stand up against it, and we should stand solidly in solidarity with them.

Dr Farry: The people of Northern Ireland very much stand in solidarity with the people of Paris and France. Northern Ireland itself is, of course, very familiar with terrorism. However, we have to bear in mind that terror can come in many different forms and formats and makes unique contributions to those who are affected by it and the societies in which they live.

Of course, the terror in France is, first and foremost, a situation in which people have lost their lives. Many families will be suffering as a consequence of what has happened. However, it is also an attack on a set of values. Indeed, going back to the French Revolution, France is very clearly a society that has been established around a sense of values and the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity.

We also have to bear in mind that this is not about a clash of two different, conflicting rights, with the right of freedom of speech or freedom of thought on the one hand versus freedom of religion on the other. Those rights very much go hand in hand. Indeed, they are the two sides of the same coin. If you look back through history, you will see that it was very much freedom of religion that generated the notion of freedom of thought and freedom of speech. It is important that we bear that very much in mind as we look to the future.

We are seeing acts of violence, terror and repression being carried out around the world through what is very much a warped sense of what religion means. This is not just an issue that Islam has to confront. It is one that all the major world religions have to come to terms with. We have seen major acts of violence being motivated by that warped sense of religion, whether we are talking about the recent attacks in Sydney in Australia, what is happening with IS in Iraq and Syria, or what is happening in Afghanistan and Nigeria. Other Members have mentioned all of those.

It is also right that we say that what has happened in France, and the attempted justification that has come from some quarters, in no way, shape or form represents the true face of Islam. Islam is fundamentally about peace in its true sense, just as virtually every other major world religion is also fundamentally about peace. At a time when Islam is being wrongly portrayed as narrow and bigoted, it is worth recalling that when Europe was going through the Dark Ages over 1,000 years ago, it was the Islamic societies around the world that kept alive knowledge and the whole values around learning and the creation of knowledge. As Western societies, we are very much indebted to them for their actions in that regard.

What has happened, not just in France but elsewhere around the world, points to the importance of how we address what is happening in terms of the fragmentation of our societies. There are major forces at work that are trying to tear societies apart, and it is incumbent upon us, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, to see how we can bring people together around a common sense of purpose through which, at the same time, we respect and celebrate diversity.

Mr Allister: I join in the absolute condemnation of the horrific events that unfolded. Like, I am sure, most people, I was aghast at the bloodthirsty brutality as it unfolded before our very eyes over the weekend. I welcome the most robust response of the security forces in France, their swift and effective action and the dispatching of those who had perpetrated that horror to meet their maker, not to be rewarded but to be condemned for the most flagrant breach of the laws against murder. Certainly, it is a relief that those individuals who were minded to murder as they did in that fashion will never kill again. It behoves all of society to ensure that those who think like them will not have the opportunity to kill again either.

In welcoming the condemnation, I note that it even includes those who, to this very day in Northern Ireland, continue to justify the terrorism of the IRA. There are no good terrorists, whether they have become Members of this House or not. Terrorism was, is and always will be evil, whether it was the murder of Martin O'Hagan or the litany of butchery by the IRA.

I also express my great regret at the attempt by Dr Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre to justify and support Islamic State. I was quite shocked to hear him on Radio Ulster on Friday do exactly that. That is a man who played the injured party and the sympathy card when Pastor McConnell was being hounded in the media, but it now seems that he stands with Islamic State. Such equivocation and such support — as we saw for years from Sinn Féin on terrorism — is the very thing that underwrites and encourages more terrorism, and it, too, is wrong.

Mr Agnew: Je suis Charlie. There is no better place to discuss freedom of expression than in a democratically elected Chamber where Members hold the privilege that protects the highest standards of freedom of speech.

To hold a political viewpoint and to express it is to risk offending someone, but none of us have the right to not be offended. Disagreement is an essential part of any democracy, but, of course, those who use violence to assert their own political or proclaimed religious views do not believe in democracy and, indeed, do not respect democracy. Those who committed those murders believed that they were right and that we should all be forced to agree with them. We should all remember that, no matter how strongly we hold a view, whether it is a political view or religious belief, it is just that; it is our view, and it is a personal view. Whilst we absolutely must respect and uphold freedom of religion, we must also protect freedom from religion.

Those of us who believe in democracy and in freedom of speech must stand together to defend it, peacefully and with dignity in upholding those values that serve us all.

Mr B McCrea: I condemn absolutely the actions that took place in Paris. I offer my sympathy to the victims and their families and my solidarity with the people of France. The actions of the last few days offer a number of really significant challenges to some quite powerful forces in our society.

My colleague Mr Agnew has just used, yet again, the phrase "Je suis Charlie". One of the challenges for us is whether that is enough. I suspect that there are not many in the Chamber who will have been aware of 'Charlie Hebdo' before the tragic events took place. One of the issues for us is whether we should leave it to individuals or small groups of people to stand up for our democracy. One of the big challenges that I have is for the media: for it to impose some form of censorship on itself. The mainstream media does not take on those challenges and, therefore, leaves individuals and small entities to face them alone. I think that that is the real challenge for us: not just to issue some words of French, but to speak out when speaking out is necessary.

That brings me to the next challenge that we face, which was alluded to by Mr Allister. Where are the limits to free speech? Is it absolutely acceptable to say anything, or are there any constraints? If there are constraints, who should put those in place?

One of the other things is that democratic chambers should take on the big debates. We should not duck the issues or hide behind some sense of not wanting to offend anybody. Let us have the proper debates in the proper areas.

The final thing that I would like to say, and that I have noticed, is that far too many people try to use events to advance their own particular agendas. The real lessons from the last few days were of a need for genuine tolerance and how it is good to air things in a proper and respectful manner. It is not about seizing those issues and trying to use them for our own advantage. With that, I think that the western democracies have a lot to do to engage their peoples on the matters that really matter to them.

Mr Ross: The world watched in absolute horror as three days of terror unfolded in Paris. It started with the brutal murder of 11 people working in a satirical magazine, then the murder of a policewoman on the streets of Paris and then four hostages being killed in a supermarket on Friday. Even today, there is fear across Paris, and Jewish schools are under armed guard this morning.

It was, plainly and simply, an attack on freedom by extremists who hate freedom, liberty and democracy. It was an attack on all the things that we should hold dear and cherish, such as freedom of speech, freedom of expression and individual liberty. Just as was the case in Northern Ireland, in Israel, Nigeria, New York or anywhere else in the world, there is no justification for terrorist activity or for those who would support such actions.

The response was clearly seen yesterday as three million people took part in unity marches across the world. The Je suis Charlie signs that were clearly seen across the world on social media and world leaders standing side by side to condemn the activities sends a strong message that people stand with the people of France to defend the French principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

That is the right response. We must stand up for freedom and freedom of speech, even if at times that freedom of speech offends or proves uncomfortable for us. It is the very basis of a free, democratic society.


12.30 pm

The response to terrorists, whether Islamic terrorists or those closer to home, is to keep living our lives and fight for the freedom that we cherish. The response has to be support for the police and for the intelligence services, even if that means that some difficult decisions have to be taken closer to home, and we have to get the National Crime Agency (NCA) operating here in Northern Ireland. We have to support the intelligence services, which will have targeted surveillance against suspected terrorists in order to keep us safe, but we must never forsake our freedom or our liberty, even when under attack.

Assembly Business

Resolved:

That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for Monday 12 January 2015. — [Ms Ruane.]

Election of Speaker

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before we commence the election of a Speaker, in accordance with Standing Order 4(2), I invite Mr Samuel Gardiner to take the Chair as Acting Speaker and preside over the election.

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner) in the Chair.

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Before we commence, I remind Members that the election of the Speaker will be conducted using the procedures set out in Standing Order 4. In accordance with Standing Order 4(2), I have taken the Chair as Acting Speaker and will preside over the election.

I will begin by asking for nominations. Any Member may rise to propose that another Member is elected as Speaker. I will then ask for the proposal to be seconded by another Member, as required by Standing Order 14. If that occurs, I will then verify that the Member so nominated is willing to accept the nomination. There will not be an opportunity for speeches at this stage. I will then ask for further proposals and follow the same procedure for each. When it appears that there are no further proposals, I will make it clear that the time for proposals has passed.

If Members indicate that they wish to speak, a debate relevant to the election may then take place in which no Member may speak more than once. At the conclusion of the debate, or the conclusion of the nominations if there are no requests to speak, I will put the Question that the Member first proposed shall be Speaker of the Assembly. The vote can only be carried on a cross-community basis. If the proposal is not carried, I will put the Question in relation to the next nominee and so on until all nominations are exhausted. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Do I have any proposals for the office of Speaker of the Assembly?

Mr M McGuinness: Go raibh maith agat. Acting Speaker, I am honoured to nominate my friend and colleague Mitchel McLaughlin for the position of Speaker.

Mitchel and his wife, Mary-Lou, and I have been friends for 40 years, and I know well that the breadth of his abilities, his dedication —

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Sorry. Could I draw your attention to the fact that it is just a nomination, not a speech at this stage?

Mr M McGuinness: I am honoured to nominate Mitchel McLaughlin as Speaker.

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Thank you very much.

Could I have a seconder?

Ms Ruane: Aontaím leis sin. I second that.

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Are there any other nominations?

Dr McDonnell: I wish to nominate John Dallat.

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Mr John Dallat has been proposed.

Mrs D Kelly: I second that.

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Are there any other nominations?

Mr Nesbitt: I nominate Roy Beggs.

Mr Swann: I second the nomination.

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Is Mr Mitchel McLaughlin prepared to serve if elected?

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Is Mr John Dallat prepared to serve if elected?

Mr Dallat: Of course.

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Is Mr Roy Beggs prepared to serve if elected?

Mr Beggs: I am.

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Are there any other nominations?

The time for proposals has expired.

A number of Members have indicated that they wish to speak. I remind Members that they may speak only once in the debate and that the Business Committee has agreed to allow each Member wishing to speak up to three minutes. I call Mr Martin McGuinness on this occasion.

Mr M McGuinness: As I was about to say — [Laughter.]

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): You can on this occasion.

Mr M McGuinness: Mitchel and his wife, Mary-Lou, and I have been friends for 40 years. I know well the breadth of Mitchel's abilities, dedication and thoughtfulness of approach to political life. I believe him to be well suited to fulfil the onerous responsibility of being Speaker of this Assembly and what that entails.

As a Derryman taking over from William Hay, a Londonderryman, this represents yet another symbolic, important step towards equality and inclusiveness. I pay tribute to William for the admirable way he represented this House and how fair and impartial his judgements were. I wish William well. I believe that Mitchel McLaughlin will, as William did, win the respect and admiration of the whole House. I have no hesitation whatsoever in nominating him as the new Speaker.

Mr P Robinson: I want to make clear first of all that there is no legal or constitutional requirement for the Speaker to come from the Foyle constituency, although I am sure that there is a recognition that there must be something special in the air down there to have the proposals coming from that constituency.

I remind the House that, when we previously looked at this issue in September, I pointed out on behalf of my colleagues that an agreement had been entered into. Let us remember, this House will not have a Speaker unless there is an agreement, particularly between the two main parties, and therefore would not operate and function properly without it. We indicated that we would honour the agreement to have a Sinn Féin nominee in that position when Sinn Féin had agreed on the issue of welfare reform. I am pleased to say, and to see, that that has now happened. I therefore intend to honour that agreement and to give support to Mitchel McLaughlin.

I say only one thing to him and to the House. An example has been set by the outgoing Speaker, William Hay, who is soon to become a Lord. I think that everyone recognises that William, in the exercise of his duty, cut his connection from party politics. That is essential, and I make it clear: there should be no party instructions to a Speaker. The Speaker must act independently in that office, and I trust that that will happen.

Dr McDonnell: I too pay tribute to the former Speaker, Willie Hay, for the tremendous job he did. He was fair, impartial, dignified and inclusive. He certainly took the role of Speaker and placed it outside party politics and in an independent space.

On the 13 October last, I was privileged to speak on the nomination of John Dallat as Speaker of the Assembly. It was very clear then — and I am very clear now — that John is an outstanding choice for Speaker. That is why we have put his name forward. As a Deputy Speaker, he has given this Assembly and its Members exemplary service over the past seven years, showing leadership, integrity, impartiality and good judgement at all times.

John has further shown his ability and capacity to take on the role of Speaker as and when required. In October, I pointed out — it is worth repeating now — that John Dallat's long and dedicated service to the Assembly has given him wide and comprehensive experience of all the procedural and corporate functions of that office. At that time, I was disappointed that other parties allowed narrow party political self-interest to stand in the way of John's election. It seems that little has changed. It appears that the DUP and Sinn Féin have re-concocted their secret arrangements. This secret arrangement is designed to exclude the rest of us in the Assembly. In the light of those side deals and secret deals, and at a time when public confidence in the Assembly is at an all-time low, it is even more crucial to have someone of the calibre of John Dallat as Speaker. It is time that we moved to an open and transparent system of government here without back-door or side deals designed to shut out full inclusion and full democracy.

Mr Nesbitt: As we conduct the first bit of business of 2015, I am sure that many Members have aspirations — maybe even resolutions — for the next 12 months. Mine would certainly be that we move towards more normal politics. In fairness, some strides were taken in that regard at the tail end of 2014 during the Stormont House talks, including balancing our Budget and getting that right, opposition, and effective and efficient government being added to the inclusion that was at the heart of the 1998 deal. Surely, however, normal politics in a matter like this would be simply selecting the best man or woman for the job, and yet we see to our left, from the largest single party, not a single candidate considered worthy of consideration by the House.

So, despite the Secretary of State's assurances that there were no side deals at Stormont House, I commend the First Minister for admitting that the DUP's support for Mitchel McLaughlin was a side deal. I am sorry that it does not feel that it has anybody worthy of consideration. The Ulster Unionist Party does: we consider Roy Beggs — [Interruption.]

Mr Nesbitt: — to be a more than capable candidate. He was first elected to this Chamber in 1998, and he has defended his seat at every Assembly election since. So, there is the first quality: loyalty. There is no doubt that the Speaker has to demonstrate a number of values, loyalty being one, as is a good temperament, attention to detail — that is absolutely critical in the role — and a sense of fairness and fair play, all of which Roy Beggs demonstrates abundantly.

Being Speaker, of course, is not just about presiding over the business of the Chamber or ensuring that the business of the Assembly is conducted smoothly; the Speaker is also the principal interface with civic society. Roy Beggs has nothing to prove in that regard. I have no difficulty — indeed, I have great pleasure — in commending and recommending Roy Beggs to the House.

Mr Ford: I suspect, Mr Acting Speaker, that, last autumn, you did not imagine that you would have to do the job twice, but I suppose that today is probably a case of better late than never.

I join others in paying tribute to William Hay and the role that he performed as Speaker. He did at least break the apparent constitutional requirement that the Speaker of the House be a member of the Alliance Party, so he must be thanked for that, as well as for his work whilst in the Speaker's Chair. There is also a sad and interesting parallel: when Willie Hay was proposed, he was proposed as Speaker on a cross-community basis. We still have not reached that point today.

When we last debated the issue of the Speaker, I made it very clear that the Alliance Party would support Mitchel McLaughlin on two grounds. First, when agreements are made, they should be honoured. It should not have required the Sinn Féin rollover on welfare reform to get the agreement on who should be Speaker of the House honoured. Secondly, Mitchel McLaughlin, as Principal Deputy Speaker, has acted as impartially as any who have been Deputy Speakers and has shown that he was preparing himself to be an impartial Speaker in the same way as William Hay was and in the same way as John Alderdice and Eileen Bell were in previous Assemblies. On that basis, he should be supported for Speaker today, not out of any disrespect for John Dallat or Roy Beggs — there is no suggestion that they are not fit to do the job — but because an agreement was reached, and he has been acting as Principal Deputy Speaker. That should carry through.


12.45 pm

I also believe that, if the House is to elect a Sinn Féin Speaker today, it will make a very significant statement about people who have been at times reticent about fully buying into the institutions of the Assembly. That is a fundamental, significant and important point that should not be lost on the wider community. With that, I have great pleasure in endorsing the Member for South Antrim as Speaker of the House.

Mrs D Kelly: I am very pleased to second my party's leader's proposal of Mr John Dallat as Speaker. John Dallat has many years of political experience, and I think that he is the longest serving member of the Speaker's Office. He has shown in the role of Deputy Speaker his impartiality and his ability to act above party politics.

As the First Minister said, we are here today with the proposal for Mitchel McLaughlin as a consequence of an agreement between the two main parties. It would do Members well to remember that the House owes its existence to both the endorsement and the agreement of the people of this island for power-sharing and partnership; not a power carve-up between the two largest parties. We in the SDLP remember well that, just a few months ago, Sinn Féin blocked the first nationalist nomination, of John Dallat, as Speaker. Sinn Féin Members had an opportunity to speak and to vote for a nationalist Speaker, and they voted, ashamedly, against it. Unlike Sinn Féin, we hold high principles and high values, and the SDLP continues to rail against the power carve-up between the two main parties. So, today, we will support Mr Dallat with pride.

Mr Attwood: First, the SDLP believes that the three candidates, Mr Beggs, Mr Dallat and Mr McLaughlin, all have the capacity and could all have the confidence of the House when it comes to the role of Speaker. However, I want to repeat two comments that I made about our candidate, Mr Dallat, when this matter came before the House last autumn. The Hansard record confirms that I said:

"The election of the Speaker today can be a watershed moment. We should measure the next 10 minutes against whether or not it is a watershed moment for the Assembly and for politics. A number of candidates have been nominated, all of whom have their particular values and virtues, but, in the view of the SDLP, more than any other candidate, the election of John Dallat as Speaker would represent that watershed moment. The election of John Dallat would be a renewal of integrity and a recognition of a good public servant." — [Official Report, Vol 98, No 3, p13, col 1].

I then added:

For too long, issue after issue in the Assembly and in Northern Ireland has been reduced to narrow deals. It has been about the division of spoils rather than the full public interest. John Dallat as Speaker would represent something and someone different. — [Official Report, Vol 98, No 3, p13, col 2].

In the view of our party, those comments made four months ago are as valid today as they were then. On the latter point, it will be curious to see, over the next number of days, whether politics is again reduced to a division of spoils when it comes to the nomination of a Principal Deputy Speaker. I wait to hear the voices across the Chamber in response to that question.

On the last occasion, the SDLP voted for Mitchel McLaughlin as Speaker, and Hansard records 14 SDLP votes for Mr McLaughlin and 24 votes from Sinn Féin. However, Hansard then records that, under the label "nationalist", 24 people voted against a nationalist Speaker of the House. Mr Boylan voted no. Mr Kelly voted no. Mr McElduff voted no. Ms Ní Chuilín voted no. Mr O'Dowd voted no.

Twenty four nationalists, nationalist by their own declaration in the Members' interests in the House, voted down the first nationalist Speaker of the House. When we come to exercise our vote, we will not follow that narrow, selective, partial, limited and backward example. Whilst we support John Dallat, we will not oppose Mr McLaughlin.

Mr Allister: Mr Acting Speaker, what we are seeing today, and what we will see in a few minutes, is the first down payment by the DUP to Sinn Féin arising from the Stormont House Agreement: the delivery of this side deal.

Three months ago, Mitchel McLaughlin was unelectable. As far as I am concerned, he is still unelectable, because he is still the same Mitchel McLaughlin, who, with great notoriety, told the general listening public that that most cruel of crimes, the kidnapping, murder and secret burial of Jean McConville, was not a crime. Yet there are some in the House who think that someone of that mentality should be made Speaker of the House. The shame is, of course, that those unretracted remarks will mark the future Speaker of the House as someone who is prepared to take that stance and who has been put in that position by many of those who say that they would abhor such comments.

Of course, the position he aspires to — the Chair, as it were, that he wants to sit on — was once occupied by Sir Norman Stronge for more than two decades. What happened to Sir Norman Stronge? He was done to death most cruelly — shot and incinerated by an IRA attack on his home. One asks Mr McLaughlin this: was that a crime? It seems that some who are going to vote for him neither know nor care whether he thinks that was a crime. We know what his party president thinks of the murder of a previous Speaker of the House, for he is on record as saying:

"The only complaint I have heard from Nationalists or anti-Unionists is that he was not shot 40 years ago."

Someone of that ilk, who thinks that the murder of Jean McConville was not a crime, now aspires to hold the position of Speaker courtesy of the votes from the DUP Benches. There are some in the DUP who, in the past, have gone for a walk rather than vote for such matters. Today I suspect that they are going to walk through the Lobbies. Well, next time they walk past the memorial to Sir Norman Stronge, may they hang their heads in shame.

Mr Campbell: The position of Speaker is a very important one, and I think that some factual accuracy should be put on the record. If every unionist MLA in the Chamber today were to vote for the only unionist candidate in the field, he would still not be elected.

In the past, when Sinn Féin have made wrong decisions and carried out wrong actions as part of the republican movement, we in this party have attacked and condemned them, and rightly so. That was, is and remains our stance. We did it consistently when others walked away, and we will do it today and in the future. When they did the right thing, we acknowledged that they had done the right thing.

For example, in support for the police and the rule of law, we acknowledged that, after many years of denying and usurping that, at long last they had done the right thing. But then, when they reneged on that, with things such as the murder parade in Castlederg, we told them that they were wrong, condemned them and said that there would be repercussions. Again, on welfare reform, when we told them that we had an agreement in private that they would implement welfare reform and they reneged on it, we said that there would be repercussions. Thankfully, they have now moved from that position: from saying that they would not implement welfare reform, they are now implementing it. So, again, we acknowledge when they do the right thing, and we condemn them when they do the wrong thing. Today, we acknowledge in word and in deed when they have done the right thing.

It is important that people be quoted accurately in this Chamber today and in the future. For example, just over a year ago when the Education Minister in this Chamber inaccurately quoted me about implementing power sharing, I accurately rectified the matter, and I am happy to do so again today. When Gerry Adams, on his departure from this Chamber, he, again, inaccurately referred to some comments that I allegedly had made, and I had to rectify the position there again.

This party stands for progress; we stand to try to ensure that we will make progress now and in the future. If Sinn Féin or the incoming Speaker, if he is elected, were to step out of line, we would condemn them. Of course, we now wait to see if all the necessary tests between now and the next Assembly election are passed.

Mr McCallister: The role of Speaker of this House and, indeed, in any parliamentary system, is hugely important. I hope that this is the last occasion on which we elect our Speaker in this way. As many in this Chamber will know, I would like to see it change. I would like it to be a gift of this House and this Assembly rather than the result of a deal done nearly eight years ago. I would like to see that separation. I think that the First Minister's point about Speaker Hay leaving his party affiliation is important, and it is important that it happens with whoever is elected Speaker today.

It is also important, and it is how I would like to change it, that they leave their constituency and all the issues that they would have to deal with, as that lifts a Speaker truly out of everyday party and constituency politics, such as writing about planning. That is why changing the way and recognising that separation and the role of the Speaker is hugely important.

The Speaker should be the champion for the Back Benches and for the work that this Assembly does in making sure that Ministers and the Executive branch of Government are held to account. That is why the role is so important, and it is why I hope that this is the last occasion on which we elect a Speaker in such a way. I agree with colleagues who said that they would have no great difficulty in voting for any of the three candidates on offer today, as I voted for them on the last occasion that we did this.

I feel that Mitchel McLaughlin, as Principal Deputy Speaker, has shown many of the characteristics that I want to see in a Speaker, including being impartial in carrying out his duties, and I hope that he will continue to do that if elected today. I just hope that, at the end of today, we end up with a Speaker. It is important that if Mr McLaughlin is elected, it signals the full buy-in of Sinn Féin into this institution and into this Assembly. It is an important point to acknowledge and to hope for. On that note, I support Mitchel McLaughlin's nomination for Speaker.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Mr Mitchel McLaughlin be Speaker of this Assembly.

The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): I formally declare that Mr Michael McLaughlin — [Laughter.]

— Mitchel McLaughlin has been elected as Speaker of the House. You have been very patient; you can come to the top of the House.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)


1.15 pm

Mr Speaker: Order. Before we move on with the other business, I would like to say few words. First, I thank Mr Sam Gardiner for serving the House by presiding over the election of the Speaker today, as well as at the dress rehearsal in October. I also want to express my sincere appreciation to the two Deputy Speakers, Roy Beggs and John Dallat, for the excellent working relationship that we have had, particularly in recent months. The situation we found ourselves in had the potential to be a very difficult one, but we all approached it from the perspective of seeking agreement in the best interests of the House and its procedures, and I think that that will serve us well in the time ahead.

Since October, we have all gained a better understanding of the issues and the pressures that the Speaker has to manage. That insight has served only to strengthen my admiration for the service that Speaker Hay gave to the Assembly. It was regrettable that Speaker Hay did not have the opportunity to be here in person when he stepped down from the Chair. I know that Members will wish him well now that his health has improved and as he prepares to take his seat in the House of Lords. I hope to have an early opportunity to invite Speaker Hay back to mark his major contribution to the Assembly, and I know that that will be endorsed by the Assembly.

Finally, I want to thank Members for their support today. I say to all Members, those who supported me and those who did not, that I am conscious that I am here to uphold the impartiality and independence of the office and the interests of the House on behalf of all of you. I know that there will be times when I, as Speaker, will have to make judgments that will not please everyone, but I am focused on that and on what I might be able to do to help increase understanding and agreement inside and outside the Chamber. We are, I believe, in a more positive political environment now than we have been for a few years, and we have much work to do. Like any debating chamber, the Assembly symbolises the rights of Members to discuss, to agree or to disagree or to decide to or to decide not to compromise. I look forward to the cooperation of all Members to exercise those rights constructively and to show collectively what this place can achieve on behalf of all our constituents.

The next item of business is a motion —

Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I request, Mr Speaker, that you might review the Hansard record, in particular the comments made by Mr Allister in relation to comments made by a third party, not in or a Member of the Chamber, in respect of the attacks in Paris and France over the past number of days. I ask that you review the Hansard report and determine whether those comments were appropriate.

Mr Speaker: I will review Hansard, and I will seek the advice and counsel that is available to me as Speaker to see whether an issue of such did arise.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Is it further to that point of order or is it a new point of order?

Mr Allister: It is further to it in one sense, but it — [Inaudible.]

— a new point of order.

Mr Speaker: Point of order.

Mr Allister: On a matter perhaps more relevant, given the moment, would it be in order to ask whether the current Speaker of the House regards the murder of a predecessor as a crime?

Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order, but let me take an early opportunity to mark the cards of all Members, including you: do not abuse the procedures or I will respond appropriately.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Committee Business

Mr Speaker: The next item of business is a motion from the Committee for Finance and Personnel on the draft Budget 2015-16. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to four hours for the debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have seven minutes.

Those who are departing the Chamber should do so quietly.

That this Assembly takes note of the draft Budget 2015-16 announced on Monday 3 November 2014 by the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Can I be the first to congratulate you on the appointment that you have received? It is obviously a first for the House. It is the first time that Derry has won something twice in a row. Barry told me to say that, and no one deserves it more, Mr Speaker. I have served with you on the Finance Committee in recent years, and the respect in which you are held by all parties in the House is second to none. I trust that you will do a fantastic job in the time ahead, following in the footsteps of Mr Willie Hay, who I have to say — I speak on behalf of party colleagues as well — always served fairly and justly in any of his dealings with the Assembly.

The Committee tabled this motion to provide the Assembly with the opportunity to debate the Executive's draft Budget 2015-16. The coordinated report on this draft Budget examined issues at a cross-cutting and departmental level and was informed by the responses from each of the applicable Assembly Committees and by written evidence from representatives of the business and voluntary sectors, economists and the trade unions. The intention is that the report and today's contributions will inform the Executive's considerations and help influence the shape of the final Budget outcome.

At the outset, I point out the shortcomings of the Budget process in its truncated nature and the fact that there has been considerably less scope than normal for input by the Assembly and wider public. Committees experienced difficulties with the time available and a lack of information from respective Departments. The coordinated report has highlighted how the current process has fallen short in good practice and again stressed the need to put in place the memorandum of understanding between the Assembly and the Executive to ensure that the shortcomings are addressed and that future Budget processes meet the needs of the legislature and Government.

We must also recognise that, on this occasion, particular difficulties and challenges gave rise to the delays and time pressures. The Committee has been mindful of the extraordinary Budget challenges that the Executive are facing. A Budget was drafted in the context of unprecedented public expenditure reductions. These reductions are, of course, set against the backdrop of a British Government who are absolutely unyielding in their adherence to a strict austerity policy. Added to that, we face additional local difficulties, including increasing pressure on the health budget, a slower rate of economic growth and recovery than other jurisdictions and inherited burdens on public expenditure arising from the legacy of the conflict, which are distinctive and additional to those faced by other regions.

Last year, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast that, overall, resource departmental expenditure limits (DEL) would decrease by a further 13% in real terms by 2018-19. In emphasising the tough choices ahead, the Minister quoted Nelson Mandela, who once stated:

"May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears."

I can think of other words from Madiba that are also fitting in this context, when he reflected:

"after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."

Clearly, there are immense budgetary challenges ahead. There will be a responsibility on all of us, across the House, to work constructively and collectively to climb those hills together in the interests of all the people we represent.

In that regard, I welcome the measures contained in the financial package delivered as part of the Stormont House Agreement, providing spending power of almost £2 billion. As well as additional capital borrowing provision, this will include new and additional funding, flexibilities to protect resource spending and measures that could also help to generate substantial year-on-year savings.

It was clear that more information and clarity is required on key issues. Many queries raised by Assembly Committees with their respective Departments remain unanswered. In the budget allocations for different Departments, for example, a number of aspects were not clear, including the basis on which bids were prioritised and the rationale for proposed departmental allocations; the proportion of budget allocations contractually or legally committed; the proportion of allocations available for ministerial prioritisation or discretion; and the criteria to be used to determine which services or programmes will be cut or scaled back. Quite clearly, there are a number of lessons that need to be learned from the process that we have just gone through.

Another key area we looked at is how the Budget will impact on the wider economy. This includes the impact on the public sector and the impact on university and further education and training places. As regards the public-sector workforce restructuring plan, a number of Committees highlighted a lack of detail on the shape, scale, timing or impact of the proposed restructuring. Various Committees and stakeholder groups singled out specifically the area of university and further education places for concern as well. The Committee has made specific recommendations to ensure that the risks in this regard are addressed.

A further key issue on which the Committee sought clarity was in relation to the £133·2 million provision for increased employer contributions in respect of public-sector pension schemes. It was not clear why this huge pressure was not flagged up sooner, nor was there confidence as to the accuracy of estimates used in the calculation. The Committee has called on the Department and the Executive to provide complete information on all options for raising additional revenue through charges and further devolved taxes and duties. This should provide transparency on projected costs, benefits, risks and impacts with a view to facilitating a fully informed and mature public debate on how best to help meet the further budgetary challenges in coming years.

Given the future requirement for further savings and the associated need to focus on priorities, it is vital that Departments apply the lessons from the last two spending review periods as highlighted in the Committee's report. In particular, there is a need to avoid the salami-slicing approach to savings. Moreover, the Committee has identified a fundamental weakness in our system of budgetary control and oversight, with DFP's role having changed following devolution:

"from one of challenge to one of ... co-ordination".

Taking account of the particular governmental structures in the North, there remains a need for a robust external advisory and challenge function to be exercised within and across all Departments in respect of budgetary savings and efficiencies. It is likely that, if this weakness is to be addressed, the Executive will need to make separate arrangements for:

"an external 'panel of experts' or commission".

This would report directly to the Executive, offering an independent critique of planned savings and ongoing implementation. Such an expert panel would require access to all the necessary information and would provide a level of assurance to the Assembly and the wider public that Departments are maximising savings while protecting front-line services.

Other issues on which the Committee has sought assurance include the need for a greater focus on preventative spending; the need to recognise the limitations to the in-year monitoring process in the current context of financial constraint and to establish a formal Budget review mechanism to operate on an annual basis, looking ahead at the subsequent financial year as a complement to multi-year planning; and, finally, the need for an agreed approach to promoting uptake of financial transactions capital in respective Departments.

I will now turn briefly to the Department of Finance and Personnel's individual budget position. Regrettably, the Department failed to lead by example or to set a standard for others to follow in the quality of its consultation paper.

Instead, the Department's paper to the Committee amounted to what can only be described as a holding response with little in the way of specifics or substantive information on savings or revenue proposals. The dearth of information presented a barrier to meaningful consultation and impeded the Committee in exercising its statutory advisory function. The Committee has endeavoured to examine a wide range of issues at a strategic and departmental level. Its recommendations are offered as a constructive contribution to inform the considerations of the Executive in finalising the Budget.


1.30 pm

I will make a few brief comments from a party perspective, a Cheann Comhairle. Obviously, this is not a Sinn Féin Budget — if it were, it would be completely different — but at its heart is a Budget that we are forced to live with as a result of our lack of ability to influence our own economic destiny.

Whatever the outcome of the elections in May, Westminster will still impose austerity on us from above, regardless of the amalgamation of parties that comes through over there. The Tories have made it quite clear that they would send us back to the 1930s to introduce another Great Depression on our schools, hospitals and public sector workers.

The parties to my right, I am sure, would say, "Take your tonic. Sure Westminster is good for you". Quite clearly, it is not. The figures for economic growth and job creation show that we are quite clearly lagging behind the rest of this island and Britain, where there are greater levels of growth. That is for many reasons, one of which is partition and another is the reduction in public spending, which is more to do with ideology in Westminster than macroeconomics and building prosperity across society.

Sinn Féin is the party of education. We led the way in securing a £500 million commitment to the schools capital build, when others gave up on securing anything more from the British Government. In this negotiation, we held out. We got commitments that other parties had given up on, and that will stand us in good stead. However, schools here need more. The Department of Education is the most important Department for economic growth, because it represents the future. If we do not invest in our future, how can we be expected to improve on it?

The Committee for Finance and Personnel carried out an inquiry into flexible working. I believe that it has a huge potential to realise savings and to change people's lives. I am thinking about people who commute from Ballycastle, Derry and Enniskillen into Belfast five or six days a week. Departments need to embrace the Committee report, rather than just saying that they will note it and then stick it on a shelf with other reports. If senior civil servants in some Departments embraced the report, it could radically change the way in which people work and would, according to the report recommendations, lead to greater productivity, lower sickness levels and allow for more public finances to go towards front-line services. Given that we are possibly heading into another four years of austerity, we absolutely need to look at each and every opportunity to realise savings and to put money towards front-line services, the Fire Service, the health service and education. There are gaps, and we need to fill them.

More so than ever, other parties need to be open to having the great debate about fiscal powers. At the moment, we have a piecemeal approach. We have looked at corporation tax and air passenger duty (APD). We need to have a debate about fiscal powers in their entirety and how we can change the rates and have those powers transferred. Quite clearly, given the outcome in economic growth and job creation, if it is broke, we need to fix it. As long as the levers of financial power remain with Westminster, things will not change. We need a full debate about the powers that we want to be transferred.

My party's position is that we want all powers to be transferred, but other parties need to be more open and less ideological about that. I give credit where credit is due: some parties have moved more in that direction. However, the urgency is there now. The Tories, if they get in at Westminster, will lambaste us with another four years of austerity and send us back to the 1930s. If that is to be the case, we need to have a serious debate about taking those powers for ourselves and looking at what is happening in Scotland and saying, "Well, you have a choice: you can decide things for yourselves, or you can let the Tories visit upon us rack and ruin in the public service, the health service, in education and so on and so forth."

I welcome the debate and look forward to the contributions from other Members, but we are still in very difficult economic times, and, to find an economic solution to our economic problems, we need to have economic levers.

Mr Girvan: From a Committee point of view, there has been a lot of good work undertaken on many aspects associated with the process and the way that we move ahead. Unfortunately, one of the areas that I have major problems with is monitoring rounds. Departments have depended greatly on monitoring rounds to deliver some of their key functions, and I will use the Department for Regional Development as an example. Everyone knows that fixing potholes and street lights are key functions of that Department, but, unfortunately, it decided to use monitoring rounds to fund those key parts of its job. As a consequence, when it has not received adequate money through monitoring rounds, it has decided to arbitrarily cut delivery of priority functions. The issue is how people have identified what are priorities and what are not priorities, and that is another area that has caused concern.

I appreciate that we are going into very tough times. There has been a major cut to our block grant over the last four years, and we are potentially running into another area of cuts. Effectively, we are seeing a reduction in real terms of 1·6% — in the region of £200 million — in our 2015-16 Budget. That does not take into account some of the areas that were dealt with in the Stormont House Agreement and additional funds that will be brought forward.

I appreciate that a draft Budget was put forward. Some of that will change during the next number of weeks as we work our way through things, but it is not easy to say where the problem lies. A lot of people want to say that the problem lies with London. I do not necessarily agree that that is where the total problem lies. We have problems associated with how we break budgets down at a local level, and sometimes harsh decisions have to be made.

I appreciate that there are major pressures on our resource DEL, and, as a consequence, some very hard decisions will have to be made. Unfortunately, sometimes we are not necessarily that good at stepping up to the mark and making those decisions, but we have to demonstrate our ability to do so. That is vital.

The issue is what should be agreed as priorities. Unfortunately, one Minister might have a priority for his Department and not necessarily agree with what the civil servants in that Department see as the priority. As a consequence, everybody has a different opinion.

We have, I believe, demonstrated that the issue is how the customer is affected. At the end of the day, the front-line customers are the ones who will feel the effects on delivery of any cuts that are made. Therefore, if something will affect how the general public feel about a service, we should not be making cuts in areas that will have a great impact.

There are those in the Civil Service who have decided, and maybe Ministers have been allowing this to happen, to make cuts that are seen as painful to put forward a message. That does not necessarily deliver anything good for the Chamber or the public.

I appreciate that there are areas that, we believe, should be ring-fenced and protected. I identified health and education, and I appreciate that job creation and how things go forward in DEL, in conjunction with DETI, are also areas that we should look at to ensure that we grow our economy and keep up.

Some of the areas associated with the financial package that has been produced in the last few days are on savings that can be brought forward and, in fact, on capital borrowings that can be put in place to help to fund a voluntary exit scheme. A voluntary exit scheme of somewhere in the region of, I think, £700 million has been identified as a possibility for that area. On the back of that, there is an opportunity for some of that resource, which would have been used over the next number of years, to work its way back into delivery.

I appreciate that the Civil Service is really for delivering services to the public; it is not an employment agency. The message needs to go out that we need to justify every job in the Civil Service and ensure that there is delivery from those jobs and that we have not created a bureaucratic monster and a somewhat bigger problem. I appreciate that we have a vastly inflated Civil Service in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, our private sector has suffered to a great degree. In moving forward, we should focus on job creation and on some of the tools that we intend to use and the opportunities that are now there for us, primarily with corporation tax and the possibility of having the powers to vary our tax-raising ability in that. That is another tool that could be used to attract inward investment, and it is something that we need to look at.

People have said that they want to do all sorts of wonderful things, but they have never given us any examples of where the money to deliver those wonderful projects will come from. We do not have a bottomless pit. We achieved what I think is a reasonably good financial package in the Stormont House Agreement. Some people say that there is no new money, but there is a significant amount of new money to be brought forward over the next number of years. I appreciate that there is also the opportunity to use some of that money to deliver savings.

I appreciate and support the work that has been done in the Committee.

Mr Byrne: First of all, I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on becoming Speaker of the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion, which is long overdue. It asks that the Assembly take note of the draft Budget presented to us last November. It is a draft Budget that, in my opinion, was poorly conceived and fails to protect the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. Its creation was never open or transparent, and its existence serves only the implementation of savage Tory cuts by the haphazard alliance of the DUP and Sinn Féin.

It is not simply the parties outside the Sinn Féin/DUP axis whose criticisms of the Budget have been dismissed. An independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers derided it as lacking "any worthwhile insight" and accused it of misunderstanding "the complexities of public expenditure". Sinn Féin preaches anti-austerity in the South while endorsing deep cuts in the North. It branded it the best Budget possible before the consultation process had even got under way. It is only fair for me to commend the SDLP's Minister, Mark Durkan, for his outright opposition to the draft Budget. Minister Durkan and the SDLP recognise that the draft Budget is an anti-worker Budget, with the use of pay freezes and redundancies ensuring an adverse effect on jobs. The draft Budget neglects the working poor, the unemployed and young people. It does nothing to bridge the regional divide between east and west, failing to recognise that a thriving and prosperous economy is unsustainable while regional imbalance persists.


1.45 pm

Any worthwhile budget prioritises economic development and job creation, but this Budget slashes jobs in the public sector. In fact, the Budget relies heavily on that job reduction, but there is no economic plan to create private-sector jobs. That is an extremely short-term solution that disregards the even greater long-term problems that high unemployment will cause for our economy and society. That is particularly pertinent in the north-west, where a high proportion of people are employed in the public sector.

I recognise that the Budget has not been as savage in my area of responsibility of agriculture as it has been in others, but it has still left the sector wanting. There are several areas in the Department that could make more savings, reduce wastage and perform in a more efficient manner overall. I welcome the proposal to move DARD headquarters out of Belfast but recognise that a cost analysis is crucial. That is still lacking. As it stands, there are only approximate costs for the proposal. The proposal also lacks proper financial and human resource analysis.

Mr McCarthy: I am grateful to the Member for giving way on that important topic. Like me, he is a member of the Agriculture Committee, and we have expressed concerns on a number of occasions about the wisdom of spending so much when money is scarce. Will the Member agree that even the farmers are a bit concerned about what is happening? I am a Member for Strangford, and a lot of my constituents are employed in Dundonald House, and they will certainly not be going to Ballykelly.

Mr Speaker: The Member will have an extra minute.

Mr Byrne: I thank the Member for that. I believe that the decentralisation of senior civil servant jobs is crucial. It is important in balancing regional development going forward. However, I note what Mr McCarthy said.

The proposal also lacks proper financial and human resource analysis; that is its biggest shortcoming. The SDLP and I require a more detailed costing and business case before any move is finalised and implemented.

The Budget proposes a voluntary exit programme, seeking a reduction of 300 staff in DARD, and aims to save an estimated £5·6 million in the ensuing year if implemented. It is critical that any redundancy scheme be completed on a voluntary basis and that the reduction of jobs be divided up between spending areas across the Department. I also believe that a skills analysis is vital to see exactly how staff reductions would be carried out and how they would impact on the services provided by DARD. The front-line services to the farming community are crucial.

The SDLP has serious concerns about the impact on such services, as that reduction in staff is timetabled to happen in the middle of the budget year. The resulting reduction may cause the loss of valuable and irreplaceable skills. We are concerned that proposed staff reductions may cause the Department to lean and depend on higher-costing consultants, which would ultimately defeat the point of using staff reductions to save money. We accept that administration costs need to be reduced but not at the expense of vital job roles in the Department. The draft Budget needs to present more information on how reductions in staff and the loss of skills and expertise will affect front-line services.

DARD is commissioning a new IT system. However, the history of government commissioning IT systems in Northern Ireland is not good. We believe that the current computer system proposals, which earmark £84 million for the new Northern Ireland food animal information system (NIFAIS) IT system, may be very costly. The result of total capital, which is £25·8 million, and the resource costs of £28·3 million spread over 10 years leads me to question whether the project is particularly necessary in our current economic climate and whether more cost-effective schemes should be looked at. Again, the Committee has been very concerned about the totality of the costs that have been signalled without there having been any detailed analysis of how such a system can be effectively implemented.

The SDLP recognises that a farmer's time is better spent on the farm. To that end, I believe that, if DARD worked together with the DOE and the NIEA, cost savings relating to farm inspections could be made more effectively. That would help with the daily running of farms and ensure that our farmers had more time on the farm without the need to deal with extra bureaucracy.

The bureaucracy of DARD continues to frustrate and challenge our farming community. The SDLP would like to see ongoing internal DARD reform. We believe that the Department should be restructured into more of a farm advisory service rather than a cumbersome bureaucracy for the farming community.

Mr McMullan: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he not agree that that has already been done and that we are looking at ways of collaborative working and streamlining the Department?

Mr Byrne: I thank Mr McMullan —

Mr Speaker: Sorry, but the Member's time is up. It was a very late intervention, but it was your decision to take it. I have to call the next Member to speak, who is Mr Leslie Cree.

Mr Cree: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and congratulations on your elevation.

This has been a difficult year for the Budget-setting process. Although the Minister brought a Budget to the House on 3 November last, the issue was not settled, and it became part of the talks process in the run-up to Christmas. The absence of detailed information in certain areas and time pressures have meant that Committees have not had adequate scrutiny of their respective budgets. Although acute financial pressures appear to have emerged after the June monitoring round, we now know that the Executive were informed of their allocations for 2015-16 as part of the 2013 spending round in June 2013. An obvious question is this: why were the problems not identified and addressed during the previous 12 months?

One of the main problems with the draft Budget was that Committees were not able to scrutinise departmental bids and proposed allocations, including any supporting evidence, prior to the Executive agreeing it for public consultation. We do not know whether a consistent approach was taken across Departments and whether the funding of particular central strategic pressures justified the resultant reduction in departmental resource budgets. I fully support the Committee's recommendation that the final Budget document should provide further information and clarity in that regard.

At this difficult time, it is disappointing that half of the Departments are recording increases in administration expenditure. That area needs to be carefully monitored and reported on. It is also in stark contrast to the reduction in the public sector pay bill anticipated in the draft Budget. Indeed, the alarming figures for potential redundancies being forecast by some Departments are a major concern. We need to have certainty in that area, and, if they are to materialise, we need to see a credible restructuring plan agreed corporately and published by the Executive as soon as possible. It is wise to assume that future budgets will bring pressure on limited resources. It is vital that front-line services be protected. Therefore, consideration has to be given to ways of raising additional revenues as a matter of urgency — not just talk but an action plan.

The Minister introduced the prospect of a Northern Ireland investment fund that could utilise financial transactions capital. I would be pleased to know the outcome of the feasibility study and whether the Treasury has agreed to the operation of such a fund. I certainly hope so, as the scheme has real merit. We still do not have the involvement of all Departments on financial transactions capital, and an agreed approach to promoting awareness among Departments and in the private sector is urgently needed. FTC now makes up a significant percentage of our capital budget, and we have to increase our uptake of it. I seem to remember saying that before. There is £115·6 million in the Budget, but the projects "require ... refinement". I would be pleased to have confirmation that those projects have now been agreed and will be delivered during the year.

On the issue of repetition, perhaps the Minister can update the House on another interest of mine that would have the capacity to improve the whole Budget process. I refer to the review of the financial process, which was agreed by the Committee and supported by the House but has been lost in the Executive for several years. We need this approach more than ever.

I understand that an agreement has now been reached on welfare reform. Again, we do not have the details, but it would be appreciated if the Minister could share them with the House. Is it likely that we would get some of the penalties refunded in this regard?

When the Assembly debated the Pensions Bill last year — the Chair referred to this — there was no reference to the possibility of increased costs to the public purse. However, £133 million is included in the draft Budget to cover increased employer contributions. Can we be sure that this figure is sufficient? What is the risk of other sudden and significant increases in the future?

Finally, there was £10·7 million resource DEL and £8 million capital DEL held at the centre for allocation as part of the final Budget. It would be good to know how that money will be allocated and how and when Departments can bid for it.

Mr Speaker: Order. As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, we have insufficient time to complete the contribution from the next Member to speak. I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. This debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Ms Anna Lo.

The debate stood suspended.


2.00 pm

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

Oral Answers to Questions

Social Development

Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development): The financial support service was part of a wider package of measures designed to support claimants to achieve and maintain financial independence. These measures include the departmental funding of front-line advice services delivered by the advice sector and also the provision of benefit entitlement checks, which are carried out by the Social Security Agency's improving benefit uptake team. These checks help ensure that claimants across Northern Ireland receive all the money they are entitled to, in an effort to tackle poverty and improve the lives of those who are most vulnerable. Where appropriate, claimants were offered access to loans and grants from the social fund discretionary provision, benefit entitlement checks and information about the support and advice services available to them in the independent advice sector. Uptake of the support and advice provided by the independent advice sector was voluntary.

The service was delivered face to face and by telephony. The face-to-face service was piloted from 19 May to 15 August 2014 in the Falls Road, Strabane and Omagh jobs and benefits offices. The telephony service was provided centrally from Omagh jobs and benefits office.

The evaluation of the pilot showed that some elements of the service were more successful than others. Results of referrals to the agency's improving benefit uptake team for benefit entitlement checks were positive, and 142 claimants were identified with a potential entitlement to benefit, while 14 claimants have successfully claimed another benefit. The total of annual benefit and arrears for the nine claims is £48,780·51. Up-to-date details of the actual entitlement cannot be obtained at this time, as claimants need time to claim benefit for the benefits to be assessed. However, indications are that the benefit entitlement for claimants referred from the financial support service will increase as time progresses.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that just more than 2,500 claimants were interviewed, at a cost of more than £100,000 per office involved, can the Minister outline his analysis of where the money could have been better spent in the whole process?

Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development): I appreciate the concerns that have been raised in relation to the overall cost of the pilot. I certainly have asked that we take cognisance of the fact that this was a cost.

It is worth having the breakdown of the total spend on the financial support service on the public record. The project team salary costs were somewhere in the region of £221,000. The operational staff salary costs were £47,000. The general administrative expenses were £8,000, and the capital costs — that is, IT development — were something in the region of £35,000. So, when you look at the ballpark figure, it certainly raises the question of whether the money was spent in the best way.

I am reasonably content that we got information from the pilot that can be used when we look at how we roll out the service as part of the wider benefit take-up process. I would not conclude that this is the only show in town or the only way to do this. Lessons have been learned, and we need to ensure that those lessons are implemented as we move forward, particularly with the introduction of universal credit.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): As Members can hear, we are picking up some interference. I ask Members to check their electronic equipment to make sure that it is in an appropriate position and not causing disruption.

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Following the Minister's previous answer, can I ask him what successes were achieved by the financial support service pilot?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her question. In any pilot, you want to try to establish the successes and the lessons learned that we could continue to implement in some other way. The collaborative process between the advice sector and the Social Security Agency worked well during the pilot and fully demonstrated how the Department, the agency and the advice sector could work together in a joined-up and coherent way that embraces the concept of providing enhanced support for claimants.

One of the key issues for me in terms of how we roll out the services to our constituents is that there is a joined-up-working approach between the Department, the Social Security Agency and the vibrant, strong and independent advice sector that we have in Northern Ireland. That was one of the key elements, because it was involved in drawing up the process and was engaged fully through the pilot. Its advice and help in the process was invaluable.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the fact that major changes are coming in the welfare area — major cuts; some want to call them "reform", I prefer to call them cuts — what has he learned from the pilot scheme that will benefit people on benefits in the new situation?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I am not really sure where the Member has been for the last number of weeks in relation to the line trotted out about benefit cuts. One thing that I have seen over the last number of weeks since coming to the Department is that, if you look at the projection of benefit uptake in Northern Ireland, we will move, between now and 2018, from a welfare bill of somewhere in the region of £4·4 billion to one of somewhere in the region of £6·3 billion. I am somewhat at a loss to know exactly what the Member means in relation to benefit cuts. I assume that he is really making reference to the challenge that we will have in ensuring that the needs of the people who face particular challenges are addressed. That is part of what I believe we have achieved in relation to the Stormont House Agreement.

It is also a duty on my part, and the Department's responsibility through social security to ensure that, as I said in the previous answer, through the independent advice sector and the work that my Department carries out through the Social Security Agency in relation to benefit uptake, whether through the pilot carried out or other schemes we are currently looking at, we do all we possibly can to ensure that all relevant, useful and valuable information is available to claimants so that they make the right decisions in relation to this very particular piece of work, which impinges on many households right across Northern Ireland daily.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I advise Members that questions 2 and 10 have been withdrawn.

Mr Storey: The Member will be aware that my predecessor had raised with the Housing Executive his concerns about the lack of maintenance and investment in relation to the existing social housing stock and, in particular, concerns about delays in maintenance and investment in the Housing Executive's multistorey tower blocks. Having come into the post, I share those concerns.

In relation to the multistorey tower blocks, the Housing Executive was asked in May last year to review and identify the necessary work required and then develop a focused maintenance strategy for the 32 tower blocks sited right across Northern Ireland. To deliver on that, and as part of my Department and the Housing Executive's asset management commission, which is currently being carried out by Savills, technical survey reports for the Housing Executive's multistorey tower blocks are due by March of this year. A draft multistorey asset management strategy is then due in May of this year. These consultancy outputs will then be taken forward by the Housing Executive to develop and progress a strategic solution for multistorey blocks in 2015 and beyond.

However, whilst this work is ongoing and awaited, I tasked the Housing Executive to prepare an interim investment plan based on its current understanding of the stock. The Housing Executive has now submitted to me an interim investment priorities plan, which is built around a number of themes, including bringing forward work to be carried out to the multistorey tower blocks. The purpose of the interim approach is to effectively bridge the gap that exists between now and the development of a comprehensive strategy for maintaining all the Housing Executive's housing assets, leading, in turn, to a clear long-term funding strategy.

Mr Spratt: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he outline what else is being done in the interim to improve the Housing Executive stock? Particularly in relation to multistorey blocks, what progress has been made on the cladding of the outside of those buildings, which has been previously suggested?

Mr Storey: In relation to what is being done in the interim to improve the Housing Executive stock, my officials met Housing Executive officials in October 2014 to discuss the position with the maintenance and investment strategy, particularly the strategy for the multistorey tower blocks. It was agreed at that meeting that an interim investment priority plan would be developed, and the Housing Executive submitted its investment priority plan in November. It was built around the tower blocks, non-traditionals with reference to the non-fines pilot, the stock transfer, thermal efficiency and so on.

In relation to the issue that the Member raises in regard to the cladding, at present there is a scheme on site in the Cuchulainn tower blocks. The Department and the Housing Executive's asset management commission have made preparation for a new tower block strategy. As I said, Savills has inspected the external structure of all the tower blocks and has been asked to provide recommendations on the need, the cost and all the ancillary works. I am waiting to get a report on how that is progressing to see what lessons we can learn in relation to this. Indeed, I am meeting the Housing Executive chief executive next week to continue to discuss this particular matter and to see what progress is being made and how we can develop it further.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his very detailed answers. I think that about 25% of the tower blocks are in north Belfast, so I have a special interest in them. Minister, in relation to the survey that has been carried out by the Housing Executive, will there be a focus on the type of tenancy in relation to the future tenancy in tower blocks? Will there be an additional concentration on energy efficiency in relation to tower blocks?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for yet again reminding me about the needs of north Belfast, which he does regularly. He raises an issue in relation to occupancy, and I think that that should not be anything different from occupancy right across the housing stock. However, given the nature of tower blocks, there are particular issues that need to be looked at, and I think that the Housing Executive does endeavour to give particular consideration to that. However, given that the Member has raised the point, I will undertake to have that as part of the discussion when I meet the Housing Executive next week.

With the work that is ongoing, I have a concern not only about the tower blocks in the Member's constituency but others across Northern Ireland, 32 in total. I have gone to see particular issues with tower blocks in the Member for South Belfast's area and I am concerned that we have allowed that particular element of stock, in some places, to deteriorate in a way in which the conditions in which individuals are living are not acceptable. Given the nature of tower blocks, we have to give particular consideration to whether there are additional measures, given the way in which we are now looking at how heating is delivered in those particular properties. I think that is a particular challenge for the Housing Executive. I give the Member an assurance that I will come back to him with more information in relation to his first point.


2.15 pm

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for his answers to date. He has referred to external cladding. Will the Minister inform the House of how many companies in Northern Ireland are capable of that work and what steps he will take to make sure that there is no accusation of impropriety and that, when making a decision to appoint a contractor to do that in those properties, there is no connection with his party or any of its elected representatives?

Mr Storey: I have to say, I am disappointed that the Member has to lower his political activity in the House to that level. I will give the Member an answer. I do not have the numbers of the specific organisations that can apply, but I give an assurance to him and to the House that, whatever contracts are carried out under my responsibility, they will be done in a way that is open to public scrutiny and is in accordance with the law, and there will be no grace or favour given to any organisation that has any association with his party or any other party in the House. I do not think the Member would expect anything else from me. I am disappointed that he has levelled that accusation at the very beginning of this sitting of the Assembly.

Mr Storey: In December 2014, my Department published a series of update reports to show the potential impact of welfare reform on local people. Those information booklets can be found in the statistics and research section of the Department’s website under the heading "Welfare Reform Briefing". Following the political discussions that led to the Stormont House Agreement, I will bring forward a paper to the Executive that puts forward further detail on the agreement and the modalities of implementing the changes. That would then enable the welfare Bill to progress through the Assembly.

Sometimes Ministers come to the House and refer to something that is on their Department's website, and then when Members go to it, they find that it may be less than fit for purpose. I assure the Member that, if he visits the website in relation to the welfare reform briefing, he will have enough material and information to keep him reading for the next number of days. It is detailed, because it is a detailed issue in relation to all of the various component parts of our welfare system. That information was updated and is relevant, and I think that it will be valuable, not only for the Member and other Members but for the general public.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for that very detailed answer. He referred to the Stormont House Agreement. Is there any aspect of that agreement on how to progress welfare reform that could not have been agreed at any stage over the last couple of years?

Mr Storey: I think that is maybe not a question for the Minister but for others who were responsible for not allowing us to progress the Welfare Reform Bill. Whatever that may be, and however one will interpret what has happened to date, we are in a better position. Let us remember the scenario that was being painted before Christmas. We were facing the collapse of these institutions and a situation where people did not know if they were going to have the imposition of welfare reform that had no changes to it.

I think that, when people begin to see the detail of what has been agreed, in addition to what was agreed previously — let us remember that what was agreed previously was put out to the public domain by me when I came into office, and it received a fair wind and a fair hearing. I think that we need to build on the achievements of the Stormont House Agreement. There is a huge amount of work. I have given an undertaking to the Assembly in relation to the information that we will bring to the Assembly, in terms of the guidance notes and how the Bill will make its passage through the House. That will be subject to a paper that, I trust, I will be able to bring to the Executive shortly, so that we can progress the issue in a way that is efficient and effective, and so that no one in Northern Ireland is adversely affected as a result of the changes.

Mr Campbell: The Minister will be well aware, as are the rest of us, that the Welfare Reform Bill is now proceeding with no additional resources being brought to bear from Westminster, which Sinn Féin said it would never do. However, now that it is being done, will the Minister give us an outline, even in approximate terms, about the cost to his Department and to taxpayers for the non-implementation of welfare reform to date?

Mr Storey: In the past, the Member has had the figures relating to the fines. At the commencement of today's debate on the draft Budget, concerns were expressed, and the party was worried about the amount of money that was being removed from Departments. We want to ensure, to the best of our ability, that we reduce and remove the additional fines that would be incurred as a result of the non-implementation of the Welfare Reform Bill. Unfortunately, money has gone in the first part of the process, and I trust that lessons have been learned by those who imposed delay, because that has undoubtedly cost us money in the Northern Ireland Budget allocation.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, in your initial answer, you referred to the detailed information on the website, which is true, but we need to distil the very complex regulations into key core messages. I have been asked about that on the street. Will you state categorically that there will be no bedroom tax in Northern Ireland? Will you give some further insight as to whether there will be a cap on benefit paid?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her question. Those two key issues — the bedroom tax and the cap — were already agreed in the previous package. I trust that we will soon see the detail that will come to the House and will be able — I was going to say, "in a very simple way", but I think that it will always be difficult with a complex process, because there are so many component parts, whether it is the bedroom tax, the cap, PIP or any of the elements that make up the welfare reform package, to be definitive in every situation to the final point. However, I give the Member an assurance that we are endeavouring, through a campaign that we will run, to provide information to the public that will be distilled in a way that will make it easy to understand and easy to grasp the impact on them and their families as we roll the process forward over the next number of weeks and months.

Mr Kinahan: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. I will home in on a little bit of detail. Will the Minister provide an update on the suggested supplementary payment fund following the talks and, in particular, what, if any, further work has been done on calculating the level of support that it will be able to offer to people who fall outside the funding under universal credit?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for the question, and therein lies one of the issues that we have to face: the detail. We are working on a paper for the Executive so that we will be able to bring that issue and a raft of other issues that are in the package to the House and start the debate in the Assembly. However, I will put the caveat that we do not have a huge amount of time. I want to be able to move as quickly as possible to bring the process to the Assembly so that the issue that the Member and the previous Member referred to is in the public domain. It will be necessary to address some of this in the guidance issued by my Department. What I said during the talks and am happy to say now in this public forum is that we will endeavour to ensure that the guidance and implementation will be done in a way that understands people's needs. If anything has been learned from the way in which universal credit in particular has been rolled out in the rest of the United Kingdom, it is more about its implementation than the overall policy intent. I want to ensure that this is rolled out on a practical day-to-day basis across jobs and benefit offices in such a way that people are not disadvantaged and can genuinely have confidence that, if a problem arises, it will be addressed and dealt with in a fair and effective way.

Mr Storey: My Department worked in close partnership with Citizens Advice and Advice NI on the development, implementation and delivery of the financial support service pilot. The key representatives with whom the Department liaised and engaged were Mr Bob Stronge, chief executive, and Kevin Higgins, head of policy, at Advice NI, and Pól Callaghan, head of services at Citizens Advice. They were instrumental in the design of the service, including the training of front-line advisers, and in designing a mechanism for measuring the outcomes for budgeting and debt support. There were a number of very successful engagement events with front-line advisers in the advice sector and the Social Security Agency. All organisations included in the design were also involved in the evaluation of the scheme.

In addition to Citizens Advice NI and Advice NI, there was engagement with other support organisations such as Lifeline, Women's Aid and Mencap to inform them of the scheme and to gain their agreement and cooperation to provide their contact details in a signposting leaflet.

I appreciate greatly the commitment, time and effort afforded by my departmental staff, agency staff and the advice sector in helping to support the financial support service trials to inform an integrated joined-up service that provides a more positive claimant experience and ensures that claimants can easily access the advice that they require.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat. Can the Minister confirm whether the agencies to which he refers have carried out successful benefit uptake campaigns?

Mr Storey: Yes, I can. We all need to appreciate that the benefit uptake campaign has been very successful, and those organisations were involved in that. I think that we all have seen how that particular scheme has brought huge benefit to many families who would neither have had access to nor benefited from it had the campaign not been in place. I am keen to ensure that it continues and that we build on the success and learn from the process, which, in this pilot, was not perfect by any means. However, I think that the collaboration, as I said in response to a previous question, has given us an indication of how we need to continue to work to make sure that people have access to appropriate information and, as a result of that information, become the beneficiaries of access to benefits.

Mr Hilditch: Does the Minister plan to further test the financial support service in other offices?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. On completion of the pilot, the decision was taken not to proceed with a roll-out of a further test of the financial support service. That decision was taken on the basis that the pilot did not demonstrate that a roll-out would be cost-effective at present, given concerns raised at the very beginning of Question Time about its cost. However, the elements of the pilot that were successful — I have tried to give some outline to those previously, such as the benefit entitlement check and the provision of the leaflet detailing the organisations that offer advice and support — will be taken forward and introduced into existing service provision across the network of offices. I think that that is something that we need to continue to work at, particularly in the light of the questions that were asked earlier on the roll-out of welfare reform. If there is going to be considerable change to the system, as undoubtedly we will see over the next weeks and months, it needs to be done in a way that ensures that people have all the relevant advice available to hand. This will play a key part in that.


2.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of listed questions. We will now move on to topical questions.

T1. Miss M McIlveen asked the Minister for Social Development how many people in Northern Ireland have benefited from the boiler replacement scheme. (AQT 1901/11-15)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for the question. The boiler replacement scheme was launched back in 2012. It provided grant funding of up to £1,000 to households with an income of less than £40,000. There was also grant funding for the replacement of inefficient boilers over 15 years of age. The latest available figures show that, since the launch of the scheme, to date, over 22,000 applications for the grant have been approved and over 17,000 households have had work completed. The replacing of an old, inefficient boiler will, on average, save households something like £400 a year and will improve the thermal comfort of the home. I think that this is obviously a good news story and something that people have benefited from, as they have seen very tangible benefits as a result of the scheme.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his response. Certainly, constituents in my area have benefited from the scheme, which has made a real difference to their lives. Will the Minister give consideration to extending it beyond March 2015, when the current funding will end?

Mr Storey: Obviously, I have had a number of requests to extend the scheme. I am giving consideration to that. One of the other additional benefits of the scheme is that somewhere in the region of 2,000 different installers have carried out work as part of it. That obviously had a particular benefit to the local economy. Just in case some Members of the Ulster Unionist Party are listening, let me say that none of those contractors had anything to do with my party or me as an individual, so I can declare that no pecuniary benefit came to me as a result of that. Extending the scheme is something that we are giving serious consideration to. I had a meeting with Phoenix gas at the end of last week, and it has been very complimentary of the way that the boiler replacement scheme was introduced and implemented. We took on board comments that it made on the scheme in particular. So, it is in the in tray, but I may need to have further conversation with the Finance Minister to make sure that funds are available so that we can progress accordingly.

T2. Mr Weir asked the Minister for Social Development how successful the landlord registration scheme has been since its introduction last year. (AQT 1902/11-15)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for the question. Obviously, some landlords have come to me to express concern. There are those who believe that sometimes you can have over-regulation in that particular area. However, the current position is that, to date, over 12,000 landlords have registered and provided details of over 26,000 properties in Northern Ireland. Landlords have until 25 February to register under the scheme.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his answer. In light of the fact that we are about six weeks away from the date by which landlords are required to register — 25 February 2015 — I ask the Minister what is being done to remind landlords of that deadline.

Mr Storey: The Member is right that the scheme's deadline is 25 February. I am sure that the Member has seen that we have begun a television advertising campaign; we also have advertisements on the sides of buses and on streetliners to get the message across. However, I have to say that we are not trying to be in any way draconian in imposing this. I genuinely want to get the message across. There is a benefit here for the landlord and also for the people who live in the properties. Therefore, I trust that it will be our experience that as we get closer to 25 February, it is more likely that the large number of those who still have to register will comply and those registrations will take place. You will probably find that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, we are picking up interference. Again, I ask you to check that electronic equipment is not set in a position that will cause difficulties.

T3. Mr Wilson asked the Minister for Social Development to outline the reason for the delay in bringing the Regeneration Bill to the Assembly, which has resulted in a delay to the transfer of regeneration powers to the new local councils. (AQT 1903/11-15)

Mr Storey: When I took up office, or, rather, when I was informed that I was taking up office, it was clear to me that, on a number of issues, we needed to have a conversation as to why we were still in a state of delay. One of the issues was regeneration. The Bill was then known as the Regeneration and Housing Bill. Members on the opposite side of the House will, I trust, bear testimony that I endeavoured to address the issues seen and raised. Previously, there had been correspondence with my predecessor particularly around concerns that, in the context of the Bill, there were issues with regard to housing. I quickly moved to have those elements taken out so that we could, if possible, ensure a speedy progress for the legislation.

By the time all that had been done, it became apparent that we were not able to get the Bill through the processes of the House and get Royal Assent before the summer of this year. Therefore, agreement on accelerated passage was not possible. That is why, next week, I will introduce the Regeneration Bill, not the Regeneration and Housing Bill. The name of the Bill has now been changed, and I trust that I have addressed the issues and concerns that have been raised with me. I am disappointed in the delay; however, the legislative process of the Bill will commence in the House next week.

Mr Wilson: Maybe the Minister will spell out whether that delay was caused by Sinn Féin's refusal to allow the Bill passage through the Assembly? If that is the case, given that the budget that will be devolved to local councils will now be much smaller than what it would have been had powers been devolved this year, will he spell out how much Sinn Féin's delay tactics will cost local councils in regeneration expenditure over the next number of years?

Mr Storey: The Member gives an overview of the current position. The budgetary implications will be determined when we conclude the current process with regard to the draft Budget and when I know exactly the financial position of the Department. However, I think that the Member is right and that it will lead to a situation where the amount of money to be transferred along with the powers will be smaller than previously envisaged. Obviously, it is convenient for some Members that that will happen under a particular Department other than their own so that the blame can rest with the current Minister as the person unable to deliver the full package.

However, I remind Members that, as far as I am aware, there was still a five-party mandatory coalition when I came to the House today. The issue is an Executive responsibility.

I will say this, however: I have had discussions. The Minister of the Environment set up a panel to look at transition for a range of issues. I attended its first meeting just before Christmas, at which I gave an undertaking to the councils to go out to them, sit down with the new authorities and, as far as is possible within the power that I have in the Department, work with them to mitigate the elements of the reduction in the budget and ensure that, in the transition, my Department and the councils give priority to the schemes that the councils would like to progress in their area. In fact, the dates for those visits have almost been secured in my diary. Be under no illusion —

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

Mr Storey: — there is no doubt that it will be challenging —

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

Mr Storey: — and will have a financial impact on the councils.

T4. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister for Social Development for his assessment of his Department’s new affordable warmth scheme, particularly in light of the restructuring of local councils. (AQT 1904/11-15)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her question, which follows on from her writing to me. I thank her for taking the time to give a very comprehensive assessment of practical issues that she has heard being raised on the ground. I trust that she will receive the response soon, if she has not already done so, as it was signed off on. The Member raised issues around the capacity of councils and said that there is a risk that a targeted approach is not equitable.

I believe that the scheme will be valuable. It will add to the previous scheme. There are undoubtedly challenges around any implementation, but I have endeavoured to make sure that comments made to me in correspondence from the Member are listened to and addressed and that we roll out the scheme in a most efficient and effective way so that people who have been targeted in a particular way, differently from how they were targeted under the previous scheme, will be addressed. I trust that that will give a greater sense of urgency to addressing their needs.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for his comments. Minister, you said "efficient and effective". I welcomed, and our party welcomed, the scheme's extension and the inclusion of a greater number of people able to access help with warming their home, but was the scheme subject to a value-for-money review?

Mr Storey: Yes, and a business case for the new scheme was examined by the Department's economists and submitted for approval from DFP.

T5. Mr Campbell asked the Minister for Social Development to outline the rationale for the recently announced hotel feasibility study in the Portrush area. (AQT 1905/11-15)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for the question on Portrush. The Portrush regeneration strategy, which was produced a number of years ago, indicated that the development of a large four-star hotel could have a major regenerational impact on the resort. My Department is responsible for urban regeneration, so we have been working closely with Coleraine Borough Council to bring forward the project identified in the strategy, including the hotel. The scoping study is an important piece of work, because it will, I trust, be used to determine what the next steps should be in the development of a new hotel for Portrush.

Mr Campbell: I thank the Minister for his answer and for his interest in the issue. He will be aware, of course, that there is a very real prospect of the Open coming to Portrush as early as 2019. Will he outline what plans his Department has in preparation for what will undoubtedly be a momentous event?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member. The Member has raised with me the concerns of some local hoteliers about even the scoping exercise that we are currently carrying out, as has his councillor colleague Mr Trevor Clarke. The Member will know that we have agreed to meet those local hoteliers who have raised some practical issues and we intend to do that pretty soon.


2.45 pm

On the issue of the Open, I believe that Portrush needs to continue the progress that has been made. Anyone who has visited Portrush recently will, I think, undoubtedly be impressed by the public realm works that have been carried out, particularly those in front of Barry's and on the east and west strands. Also, anyone who has been in Portrush over the holiday period and in recent days will have seen what I have described as "a restaurant revolution". The number of people who now see Portrush as a night economy location for restaurants is, I think, a credit to those involved.

The Portrush regeneration strategy, Coleraine Borough Council and my Department will carry out further work to ensure that every step possible is taken to have Portrush in its best shape when the Open comes to Northern Ireland. That is something that we all need to work towards. That is why I also plan to bring a paper to the Executive that I trust will be supported by my Executive colleagues on how we can, collectively, continue to enhance Portrush for the local tourist industry and wider tourist improvement, on which I believe it will be well placed to deliver.

Agriculture and Rural Development

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Questions 4 and 6 have been withdrawn.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): The intention to procure an ICT system to replace the animal and public health information system (APHIS) was notified in the Official Journal of the European Union in the first week of July 2014. The value of the contract was given as from £56 million to £65 million, excluding VAT, over an anticipated lifetime of 15 years. That value was based on the projection and estimates employed in the outline business case. It includes the costs of the initial development and testing of the NI food animal information system (NIFAIS), support for the migration of data and transitioning from DARD’s existing systems. The anticipated cost also covers the system’s support and maintenance over its 15-year lifetime and any further development, enhancement or upgrade that may be required within that period.

Mrs Overend: Can the Minister give a commitment, as her Department enters a budgetary cycle that she admits is immensely difficult, that she will review her decision to spend so much on the new system and, in particular, revisit it to determine if there are any areas in which cost savings could be made?

Mrs O'Neill: I assure the Member that the Department has done its homework on the outline business case and on making sure that we cost the system fully. That has all been done and has been fed into the estimate set out in the journal. You have to remember what this system does: it gives us quality assurance; it allows us to stand above others when going into other export markets and targeting new markets, because we can say that we are fully traceable and have a system that stands over that. That is the value of the system.

On the scale of things, £56 million to £65 million sounds like a considerable amount of funding, but you also have to remember that this is over 15 years, includes ongoing maintenance and will be able to respond to any changing needs that the industry may have. So, I think it will be a worthwhile investment that the industry and we require if are to be successful in achieving the aims set out in Going for Growth around targeting new markets.

Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for her comments on NIFAIS. Can she assure the House that a project team is in place and will bring in a cost-effective system within an agreed timescale that meets the needs of the farming community?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I can again assure the Member that we are doing everything we can. This system is so important to the industry; it records all the data, all the information. It is important that we work our way through the process, which has been some time in the making to get us to the stage of going out for tender. It is important that the system is right, appropriate and fits the needs of the industry. That is certainly what the project board is establishing and working up, as we speak.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat. Will the Minister elaborate on the necessity for such an ICT traceability system?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. Again, I have made this point on a number of occasions but it is it is important that we make it: what we are talking about here is somewhere between £3·7 million and £4·5 million per year over 15 years, which gives us full traceability for the industry, allows us to target new markets and to really showcase what we have to offer.

The Member will be acutely aware that our industry was able to stand above others over the recent horsemeat issue because we had a full traceability system. That is the value of this system and why we need to procure it to make sure that we have a new system in place that will help our vet service and traceability within the industry. As I said, it helps the vet service around TB work and everything else that happens. It is a necessity for the Department. The project board is making sure that we have crossed all our t's and dotted all our i's in making sure that we are getting absolute value for money and that the system is able to respond to the needs of the industry. I am confident that that is what we are going to have.

Mrs O'Neill: The Forest Service has used funding made available through the Executive’s economy and jobs initiative to make the listed building known as the Tollymore Teahouse compliant with modern requirements for public access and fire safety. That work is complete and the building is at the stage where it can be made available for operation and fitting out by a franchisee or developed for an alternative use.

Forest Service is working in partnership with Down District Council on the council’s plans for the overall development of Tollymore Forest Park and officials attended a presentation of the consultant’s advice to the council shortly before Christmas. Forest Service was informed that the council anticipates a need to provide catering facilities. Details for further involvement by the council or a franchisee have still to be developed.

Efforts to find a franchisee continued for some time after the previous tenant left in 2002, without success. The chief reason is believed to be the high cost of operating the building and the difficulty for someone in making an adequate financial return. Since then, Forest Service has offered a mobile catering franchise to meet summer demand, and tenders for the 2015 season are invited by 23 January.

Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for her response. Tollymore Forest Park is one of the most utilised outdoor forest parks in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister do everything she can to see that there is some food provision for this summer, given the number of local and international tourists who visit?

Mrs O'Neill: I agree with you and I agree with the potential for the forest. As I said, officials are continuing to work with the council to make sure that we at least have the current arrangement in place for this summer. Obviously, however, we are more keen that we get a sustainable, longer-term solution and we are actively working with the council to do that.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. Will the Department give an assurance that it will consult and cooperate with councils before making any forestry franchises, particularly because the councils have spent quite a bit of money in putting business cases forward for such facilities?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, absolutely. The development at the forest has been in conjunction with the council and, as I said, departmental officials attended that meeting just before Christmas with the council officials. We are very keen to make sure that we work with our partners. The key to the Department and Forest Service's social and recreational use of forests is that community partnership and the partnership with councils. For me, that is vital; it is the only way that we can take these projects forward if they are going to be successful.

Mrs O'Neill: I am pleased to report that 40 events have now been held across the rural North to encourage rural dwellers to join the new local action groups (LAGs). It is encouraging that over 2,000 people have expressed an interest in being a social partner on the new LAGs and, indeed, have completed a membership form. Six hundred people have indicated further that they would be prepared to be a LAG board member and others have expressed an interest in being involved in the day-to-day work of the LAG, such as sitting on assessment panels.

This is great progress and I believe that these figures show that there is clear evidence of the interest in rural communities for people to have their say in how funding is invested in their rural area. The LAG process will continue, with LAG boards being selected by the end of January. I look forward to awarding the new LAGs their contracts as soon as the operational programme is approved by the European Commission.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her answer. She said at the end that she was waiting for some sort of clearance from the European process, but has she any indication of when the application bids will open?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. The operational programme is with the Commission. We had hoped to have some initial conversation with it or confirmation of its views on the programme. That has not happened yet, but we are still aiming to get things sufficiently signed off by June. In the absence of that, however, we are going to develop the local LEADER programmes, which will be delivered by the new local action groups. They can be working on that, and we hope to open for what is called animation — open and ask for expressions of interest for new projects coming forward — towards the end of April and the start of May.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for her answer. Can she give an update on how LAG staff members will be transferred between the old and new LAGs?

Mrs O'Neill: I can give the Member more detail in writing; I do not have that detail here. Suffice to say, we are working with councils because they were the employers. That is a process that is being worked through at this time, but I am happy to provide the Member with more detail in writing.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her response so far. Could she advise the Assembly on the suitable social partners? Would those include conservation groups, which already do excellent work throughout Northern Ireland?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, absolutely. We are really keen that we get as many views as possible around the table. That is why we have gone out and run hard to try to reach people who were not necessarily involved with the LAG structure in the past. Given the numbers that have come forward, from a quick look through the list, there is a wide range of people, including conservation groups.

Mr Irwin: Is the Minister confident that the time frame of June can be met for the opening of new applications?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. We are not sitting back and waiting for Europe to confirm the programme. It is with them, and we hope to get approval ASAP, but there is a lot of work we can do. There is the animation work on the ground, asking for applications and getting things started. So, yes, I am pretty confident that, by about May, we should be able to have applications sitting on the desks.

Mrs O'Neill: I am committed to supporting beef and sheep farmers in our less-favoured areas (LFAs) and have ensured that there is a range of support measures available to support the sustainability of these farms. In January 2014, I agreed to a further less-favoured area compensatory allowance (LFACA) scheme for 2014-15, providing stability to beef and sheep farmers in those areas during this transition period to the new CAP support framework. I announced this morning that payments rates under the scheme will remain unchanged. I expect payments to issue from early March.

Direct support under pillar 1 of the CAP is vital to our farming industry and currently around £160 million goes to farm businesses located in the LFAs. Implementation of CAP reform this year will bring changes for many farmers but the overall level of direct support going to LFAs, particularly the severely disadvantaged areas, will increase slightly, year on year.

The new rural development programme (RDP) will provide opportunities to join a new agrienvironment scheme, help to facilitate integration and cooperation in supply chains, and provide training, advice and support to help to improve efficiency. The proposed farm business improvement scheme will include a portfolio of measures to support sustainable growth in all farming sectors.

In June 2014, I announced the new areas of natural constraint (ANC) scheme for the first two years of the next RDP period. This will replace the current LFACA scheme. I intend to implement a one-year transitional payment for farmers in the disadvantaged areas, as these areas will no longer be eligible for this support under new EU rules.

I will not change the current LFA boundaries in the short term. The redesignation of these boundaries can be considered in tandem with a review of the ANC scheme, which is planned to commence later this year.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for her very detailed answer. Minister, what exactly will be the shape of the advice and guidance given to the farmers?

Mrs O'Neill: We are going through a period of change because of CAP reform, and everything is changing for farmers in their support, their single farm payment being split into three payments and all the changes around greening. A considerable body of information is coming towards farmers, so we are out on roadshows to try to give people information in person. There is a question-and-answer section on the DARD website, and we have a DARD helpline. I encourage farmers who are in any doubt about any issue to seek advice and guidance.

Our College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) advisers assist farmers with their business development and how to take their business forward. So, a lot of advice is available through CAFRE also. Again, I encourage farmers to use those services.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for her answer thus far. How can the Minister support low and volatile incomes on LFA beef and sheep farms?

Mrs O'Neill: I recognise that LFA beef and sheep farmers operate in what is, by the nature of geography, a challenging economic environment. Farmgate prices are not as high as farmers would like. Input costs have increased in recent years, exchange rates are volatile and the current weakness in the euro all impact on returns from exports and reduce the value of single farm payments.

I have worked hard to ensure a fair deal for LFA farmers under CAP reform, which will come into effect this year. The new RDP also contains much that will benefit LFA farmers. I have also continued the LFACA payment into 2015 and maintained the level of payment per hectare. Overall, my Department is delivering a package of measures that will improve and sustain LFA beef and sheep farmers.


3.00 pm

Mrs Dobson: Will the Minister clarify how many farms that received less favoured area support in 2014-15 will no longer be eligible to receive such support? Will she provide an update on the estimated value of the one-year transitional payment?

Mrs O'Neill: There are approximately 17,000 farm businesses in the LFA scheme. In terms of the number that will lose out — remember, they will lose out as a result of an EU change, not a departmental change — Europe has said that, next year, there will no longer be a payment to disadvantaged areas. I do not have the figure to hand, but suffice to say I was very concerned that those people would miss out on a payment, so I secured agreement with the Executive for the transitional payment. It is no bother to send the Member information on the number of farmers who will be impacted upon, and the rate will be struck accordingly at the same time of year as usual.

Mrs O'Neill: The position on agricultural property relief was outlined in a letter from the British Treasury to the then Ministers of Agriculture and Rural Development and Finance and Personnel in December 2009. That position remains unchanged and clarifies that land let in conacre will qualify for agricultural property relief, provided that the deceased owned the land throughout the seven years immediately prior to death and that, throughout that period, the land was farmed, either by the deceased or by another person.

Although all taxes are kept under review, I am not aware of any plans to change the rules around agricultural property relief and, in particular, how it relates to conacre. As taxation law is complex and liability depends on individual circumstances, it is important that professional advice is sought for specific cases.

Mr Kinahan: I declare an interest as I let out land on conacre. I am still very concerned that those who have done so may find themselves, because of the change in the definition of an "active farmer", losing out. Is the Minister taking advice from HMRC about the future to ensure that farmers are protected and do not find that their future has changed and that they cannot hand their farms on to the next member of their family?

Mrs O'Neill: The assessment by DARD as to whether a business is eligible for a particular scheme under the common agriculture policy is not the determining factor when it comes to taxation liability. I assure the Member that, as we go through all the changes from CAP reform, our Department is working very closely with the DSO to make sure that any legal issues that may arise are fully explored. Those are the types of questions that we are being asked by farmers, so we want to provide as much clarity as possible.

As I said, the British Treasury has not made any changes to the scheme that it has on its books, and it has made it very clear that, under current rules, land let in conacre can qualify for agricultural property relief provided that it has been owned by the deceased and farmed, including by another person, through the seven years immediately prior to death. It is a very specific and detailed area, but I can give an assurance that we are working with the Department's solicitors to make sure that we clarify these issues.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answers so far. She has probably covered some of the answer to this question: what is the importance of being classified as an active farmer?

Mrs O'Neill: That is the question that comes up time and time again in relation to this topic and other topics. We have worked very hard on trying to provide that detail for people. Unfortunately, Europe was a bit slow to filter the information, but I encourage any farmer who is in any doubt to contact the DARD Direct offices, contact Orchard House or contact the Department in any way. Use the question-and-answer section on the website, use the intranet and use all the avenues that are there to make sure you clarify that you are, indeed, an active farmer. The purpose of CAP reform is to weed out the inactive farmer and make sure that supports go to those farmers who are farming the land.

Mrs O'Neill: The farm management deposit scheme, which operates in Australia, is one of a number of mechanisms that can assist farmers to deal with fluctuations in their annual farm income. The deposit scheme allows farmers to set aside pre-tax income in years of high income and then to draw on these deposits in years of low income, with tax being paid in the year in which the money is withdrawn. This type of system could be beneficial for farmers. However, taxation policy is not a devolved matter and the introduction of such a scheme here is not within my gift. Our own tax system permits farmers to average profits over a two-year period, which allows farmers to spread their tax burden. I would support extending the number of years over which this averaging can take place, but again this is not a devolved matter.

Fluctuating markets is not a new problem, but it remains a very difficult issue for farmers. For me, it is one of the reasons why direct payments, such as the single farm payment, are so important to the agricultural industry. These funds provide a regular income stream, the value of which is reasonably well known in advance. I fought hard to maintain the system of direct payments in the recent reform of CAP and will continue to do so.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for her answer. She spoke briefly earlier about departmental assistance to help farmers with their income. Does the Minister acknowledge the current absence of a specific mechanism designed to mitigate price volatility?

Mrs O'Neill: Obviously, pricing is a commercial issue. There is a whole range of things that the Department can do to assist the industry, particularly around knowledge transfer, providing advice, helping people to work up business plans and promoting greater efficiency on farm. In looking at what I and the Department can do, we will concentrate on those areas. The other key area that we have to concentrate on at Executive level, not just my Department but DETI, is new markets. We need to explore new markets for the industry. Again, that will help the price in simple supply and demand. These are the areas that we are focusing on in the Department. Your initial question was around being able to spread the farm deposit scheme across a number of years. I would be very supportive of that, and I have actually written to DEFRA to raise that point.

Mr G Robinson: As the trend is towards continuing growth and expansion opportunities for our farming communities, does the Minister agree that it is important to assist our farmers through these difficult financial times?

Mrs O'Neill: Absolutely. We have seen prices fall in the dairy industry and, at the end of last year, in the beef sector. Thankfully, they have improved, but it is a very challenging situation. As I said in a previous answer, we have had a rise in input costs. The value of the euro and all the challenges that are there seem to be conspiring against the farming industry at this time. It is so important that my Department does all that it can to help people through what are very difficult times. One of the things that I did recently was to have a meeting with all the main banks around their being flexible in dealing with their farming customers, given the pricing situation that we are facing. That was quite a positive engagement. I was accompanied by the UFU, which was quite positive in that we were speaking with one voice in asking the banks for a bit more flexibility for the industry as it goes through what is a very difficult time.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as na freagraí seo. The Minister mentioned the dairy sector in her last answer and knows that it is a difficult time for that sector. What support can DARD provide to the dairy sector at this time?

Mrs O'Neill: As I said, both I and my Department are fully supportive of the dairy industry. We will continue to do what we can throughout this difficult time. One of the recent issues was the introduction of the Russian ban on dairy imports. The Enterprise Minister and I wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs advising of the concerns that were expressed by the local industry, particularly around the ban. We emphasised the need for support from EU level. That is something that I also raised with Commissioner Ciolo? when I was in Brussels in September. I continue to lobby DEFRA on its approach to Europe. We have very different views about supports for the industry. However, I will always fight the corner for our industry.

As I said earlier, I, alongside the UFU, recently met the banks to discuss cash-flow concerns. That was a very useful conversation. We have asked the banks to be very proactive, sympathetic and flexible and to work with the industry. We are hopeful that that will be the experience of farmers. Given the drop in prices, the Russian ban and all the other challenges that are there for the industry, it is so important that I continue to do whatever I can. Alongside the supports that we provide, particularly around advice, we need to be looking at new markets and at what support we can provide for the industry to get into those new markets. How can we target them? What do we have to offer? What is our unique selling point?

I am keen to work with DETI on those areas to live up to the aspirations of the Going for Growth strategy.

Mrs O'Neill: My Department recognises that the further development of renewable energy is a key commitment in the 2011-15 Programme for Government. In 2010, the Executive approved the strategic energy framework, committing that, by the end of 2020, 40% of electricity would come from renewable sources. My Department — Forest Service in particular — is actively investigating the opportunities to support those commitments and obtain value for money. Work from 2009 onwards confirmed commercial interest in the Forest Service estate. A wind energy development manager seconded from the Strategic Investment Board since the start of 2014 is progressing work on site selection and assessment, commercial analysis, policy development and community participation and benefits. This is a large and complex piece of work that is looking at multiple sites. The business case must be robust and must pass the tests of the approval process. I am pleased to report that a strategic outline case to support the work was approved in November 2014, and the next stages of business case development are ongoing.

The Department's business plan requires Forest Service to publish a procurement strategy for the exploitation of wind farm development opportunities on its estate. In the first half of 2015, we intend to offer selected sites for the market to take forward. Those sites are on forest land adjacent to operational, consented or wind farms under development and offer the best potential to deliver projects in a reasonable timescale. In parallel, we intend to assess further sites on forestry land that offer significant larger-scale wind energy potential. I am committed to ensuring that the work is done in consultation and in collaboration with local communities and representatives and making sure that all stakeholders benefit equitably so that Forest Service projects become an exemplar for schemes that provide community participation and benefits from wind farms.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Does she have any plans or can she give any consideration to, if you like, community benefits resulting from such developments on the Department's estate?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. In parallel with public acceptance, the theme of community benefits and participation is absolutely central to the process that I am interested in taking forward. It is a specific work stream of the wind development plans that the Forest Service is taking forward to review and report on the community participation and benefits models that exist in Ireland and other relevant jurisdictions; to stress-test those models and their suitability for deployment on publicly owned sites — that is, Forest Service lands; and to present that information to community stakeholders in advance of wind farm plans coming forward. It is key that we have community involvement from the initial stages and that communities are very much part of it. As I said, it is essential to the successful exploitation of opportunities on the Forest Service estate to ensure that all stakeholders benefit equitably. In particular, that means early and appropriate engagement with community stakeholders to ensure that, whatever schemes are proposed, community participation and benefits are understood and considered acceptable. That may require the Forest Service to show leadership in that area, potentially in advance of the work that is being taken forward by DETI, as DETI is also in the process of developing an action plan. My Department works with that, but, in waiting for that to come forward, it is important that community benefits and participation are key to any projects that move forward.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a freagra cuimsitheach go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for her comprehensive answers. In light of the collapse of the wind turbine at Fintona, will she provide us with some detail of what health and safety, construction and location guidelines are used by her Department in the construction of turbines on departmental lands?

Mrs O'Neill: I have been watching closely and have talked to some of the residents in that area. I believe that what happened is quite an unusual event, but that is not to say that there should not be a full investigation of the ins and outs of what happened and why it went wrong — there needs to be. I believe that that investigation is under way, and we look forward to the outcome. Health and safety concerns will have to be absolutely central to any project going forward on Forest Service land. That will all be built into the programme and the planning, and I assure the Member that the health and safety asks will be of the highest standard in what we will require for anything that goes onto Forest Service land.

Mr Buchanan: My question is along the same lines: exactly what consideration will the Minister and her Department give to the safety issues of any new wind farms proposed on land belonging to the Department?

Mrs O'Neill: It is the same answer. They will have to be key to any project. They will be inbuilt.


3.15 pm

Mrs O'Neill: The draft budget for DARD envisages that we will reduce our staffing by around 300 posts by the end of September 2015. For the second half of 2015-16, that would effect a saving of £5·6 million and an annual saving of around £11·2 million thereafter. We anticipate staff leaving the Department under the voluntary exit scheme from the autumn of 2015.

The 300 posts will be spread widely across the functions of the Department, but it is not yet possible to be precise about which posts or functions will be affected. My priority will be to continue to deliver services to our customers in the most efficient and professional way, but this may mean changes to services and how we deliver them. My officials have commenced a number of reviews of the Department’s structures and operating models to identify where the reductions will come from and how services will need to change.

The Department is committed to a review of advisory services and the development of our customer contact model. We are also exploring the greater use of new technologies and digital services to achieve further savings.

It is not yet possible to estimate the number of DARD staff who may avail themselves of the Civil Service voluntary exit scheme, but we will use other opportunities to achieve staff savings, such as natural turnover through retirements, resignations and other leavers. The Department is also participating in the Civil Service-wide embargo on recruitment and promotion and is reviewing the use of agency and casual contracts.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of the period for listed questions. We now turn to topical questions.

T2. Mr Ó Muilleoir asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what steps she has taken to minimise the negative impact on farmers of the recent NI Water industrial action. (AQT 1912/11-15)

Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire maidir leis an gníomhaíocht thionsclaíoch ag Uisce Thuaisceart Éireann agus a thionchar ar fheirmeoirí.

Mrs O'Neill: The situation is very unfortunate, to say the least. As well as the risk to individuals, homes, water supplies and vulnerable groups, it has the potential to affect farm animals, which rely on fresh drinking water. Farmers also need clean water supplies for dairy hygiene purposes.

My officials are working closely with NI Water to find ways to minimise any disruption. Farmers who are experiencing significant water shortages during the current industrial action should contact NI Water in the first instance. Advice on water requirements and dairy hygiene has been made available on DARD's website, but I encourage farmers who are experiencing any animal welfare problems to contact the DARD helpline on 0300 200 7852.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. The Minister plugged the hotline. Will she tell us how many calls have been made to the emergency hotline in that regard?

Mrs O'Neill: I suppose that I should have added that we are working closely with DRD. There is a daily multi-agency teleconference, and the Department is involved in that.

The helpline has received only two calls from farmers in Fermanagh, and the veterinary service will follow those up. Those were more about seeking advice on how long the strike has the potential to last. There are concerns, and, as I said, I encourage farmers to contract that helpline if they need any support.

T3. Mr Buchanan asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what her Department is doing to help the Northern Ireland beef sector to access the US market, given that she will be aware that, following a two-year campaign by the Southern Government, Irish beef is back on the US menu after a 16-year ban. (AQT 1913/11-15)

Mrs O'Neill: Core to the work that we did around Going for Growth and the strategy that has been set out was the need to target new markets. We are also working closely with DETI and Invest on the work that they do around the world on that. I go back to the problems that we talked about earlier, the difficulties that farmers face: unless we find new markets, prices will continue to be low, so it is important that we do.

In recent months, new markets have been opening up, South Africa being one. We hope to get into the American market and will work to make sure that we do that. We are a small island, and what we offer has full traceability. We are working closely with the Department in the Twenty-six Counties to make sure that we have full traceability across the island. When we achieve that, there is no reason why, when export markets open up for the Twenty-six Counties, they will not also open up for us.

So, I am very keen to ensure that we explore all those new markets and to work with DETI to make sure that that is what we do for the industry.

Mr Buchanan: Minister, you are right to say that new markets are vital for the beef sector here in Northern Ireland. Have we any indication when that sector will be able to enjoy and see the coming to fruition and opening up of those new markets?

Mrs O'Neill: No, we do not have an indication of that at this stage. It is very difficult. You will know that, for some time, we have been chasing the Chinese market in connection with pork exports and we have come so close. We are waiting for another veterinary inspection. We hope to have that very soon and we are pushing very hard for it.

My Department has a role in the export certificates, and we are working very hard to prioritise the markets that the industry is targeting. China is obviously a big market that we are exploring, and I have been there on a number of occasions. I will continue to do that until we break in to that market for pork and obviously all the other products that will come after that.

T4. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development when she expects to be in a position to announce the roll-out of the farm business improvement scheme. (AQT 1914/11-15)

Mrs O'Neill: The Member will be aware that, as part of the draft consultation, I set out that, over the next year, 2015-16, we are going to work very closely with farmers. We have set aside a draft allocation of funding to work with farmers on developing their business cases and getting them ready to be able to bid in. We have also set aside some money for the actual physical delivery of the scheme. At this moment in time, we are talking about somewhere around £3 million. However, that is the draft Budget position, and I hope that we will be able to increase that as part of the consultation that I have been having with DFP and Executive colleagues. It is my intention that that will be rolled out before the end of the year.

Mr Campbell: Obviously, things are pretty difficult in many sections of the agriculture community. Can she identify which sectors are most likely to be able to benefit from the scheme when it is announced?

Mrs O'Neill: The scheme is not prescriptive, in that it is not favouring one sector over the other. Those in the whole industry, whether it is the poultry sector, the dairy sector or the beef sector, or, indeed, horticulture or all the many other sectors, are very keen to be able to develop their business, and although they do not all have business plans, they all have business improvements in mind. So, it is important that the Department does the work with the industry, develops people's business plans and helps them to make informed choices on how they will invest their own money and apply for public funds.

T5. Mr Brady asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development how she has acted to protect her priorities in the 2015-16 Budget. (AQT 1915/11-15)

Mrs O'Neill: I will start, as I always do when it comes to Budget discussions, by reinforcing our dismay at the extent of the Tory cuts to fund public services here and the challenging position that they put all of us in. The scale of reductions is unprecedented, and, particularly when it comes to my Department, trying to find £29·9 million resource is quite a challenging task. That being said, I have tried to take a very balanced approach, and we have tried to address the challenges that lie ahead. I am resolved to deliver the commitments that were assigned to DARD in the Programme for Government, as well as my key policy objectives, particularly Going for Growth, tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI), areas of natural constraint (ANC), the LEADER approach, DARD HQ and flood alleviation. Those are key areas for me, and, as I set out in the draft Budget position, those are what I feel we need to focus on.

To protect the funding for the key priorities, I have considered all elements of the DARD budget. That review included the scrutiny of DARD's operational running costs, as well as opportunities to leverage additional sources of income. The draft Budget proposals include £6 million of additional income that will help to deliver a balanced budget.

In addition to the savings plans, I am also resolved to seek and secure additional funding to deliver the commitments that the Executive made back in June. That includes funding to support the new rural development programme and Going for Growth in particular. I am aware that, previously in the House, the Finance Minister expressed words of support for Going for Growth, and we now need to see that translated into a financial commitment.

Mr Brady: I thank the Minister for her answer. She has acted to protect the TRPSI programme. Will she outline what is allocated from that programme in 2015-16?

Mrs O'Neill: The rural poverty and social isolation programme is, I am glad to say, on course to meet its full spend allocation that we had allocated up until this year. The proposal to extend the programme into an additional Budget year provides more funding to tackle the key issues of rural poverty and isolation. In reviewing the responses to the DARD draft budget, DARD stakeholders and partners have seen it as a positive development. The resource allocation allows DARD to continue to support all existing schemes at the required levels in 2015-16, and that includes the great projects such as maximising access in rural areas (MARA), the arts, the connecting elderly rural isolated project, the farm family health checks and young entrepreneur projects. We are also able to do more work to improve broadband in rural areas. We will open a rural challenge programme providing community and voluntary groups with access to small-scale capital funding. So positive work is being done through the programme of about £4·7 million for the 2015-16 year. Obviously, we will plan for the schemes in 2015-16 and onwards.

T6. Mr McQuillan asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what she or her Department can do to ease the pressure on dairy farmers whose plight has been well highlighted over the past two or three months. (AQT 1916/11-15)

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Yes, you are absolutely right. It has been a dire situation for dairy farmers, and we have been working very closely with the sector. As I said earlier, I met the banks recently to ask them for flexibility, support for the industry and sympathy for the fact that incomes are reduced by so much. It is important that we continue to drive home the message that farmers need a fair return for their product. That is the key message that I will continue to drive home. We work very hard with the industry to make sure that we transfer knowledge and provide support for efficiency, education and training, technical support, and Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) research programmes. There will be opportunities to support the industry under the new rural development programme. So we are targeting quite a number of areas of work, alongside new markets.

Mr McQuillan: I thank the Minister for her answer. My supplementary question was to ask the Minister to meet the banks. You have already said that you met the banks, but did you get a fair hearing?

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Yes, I did. I met the banks with the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU). The leaders of all the main banks were there, and we did get a fair hearing. They understood our call for flexibility and support for the industry. What that translates into on the ground will be evident to farmers themselves. I will continue to apply political pressure when I can to those who can assist the industry, and banks are obviously key.

T7. Ms Ruane asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for an update on the decentralisation programme to Down, Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh. (AQT 1917/11-15)

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): I remain committed to taking all reasonable steps to ensure the transition of the Belfast-based headquarters to Ballykelly, the relocation of fisheries to south Down, forestry to Enniskillen and the Rivers Agency to Loughry Campus in Cookstown. We are on target to deliver by the dates that we originally set out: later this year, we will see the first of those moves being completed with Forest Service and fisheries. I am delighted that that is ongoing. It is a considerable piece of work. The Member knows that I am committed to the relocation programme. It is about a fair distribution of public-sector jobs and fairness across the public sector. We will continue to drive that forward. I have set out my commitment to the capital allocations in the draft budget position.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an bhfreagra sin. I thank the Minister and I welcome the decentralisation to my own constituency and that it is on target. Could the Minister provide an update on the staff surveys that have been carried out to identify interest in relocating to the new areas?

Mrs O'Neill: Surveys have been completed for all four locations in order to gather more detailed information, after having done some scoping work in the past. Whilst there were concerns at the start that a number of people in DARD headquarters did not want to move, the further work has generated an overwhelming response, with over 4,000 staff registering an interest in one of the posts. That is many more applicants than posts. It shows very clearly that there is a need for a change in the public sector. Individuals want to find a better life/work balance and a job closer to home. Over 1,500 wanted to apply for Ballykelly alone; over 1,000 for Cookstown; almost 1,000 for Downpatrick; and 435 for Enniskillen. That shows a significant appetite for posts outside Belfast. Detailed analysis is now under way to determine grade matches between those who have expressed an interest and the positions at each location. I am very enthused by the numbers of staff who have decided that they want to work in a location outside the greater Belfast area. That is very positive and shows that there is a need for this change across all Departments.


3.30 pm

T8. Mr Girvan asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, following her comments about the issues associated with Going for Growth, what mechanism is in place to ensure that young people are encouraged into farms in Northern Ireland. (AQT 1918/11-15)

Mrs O'Neill: It is really key that we get young people to come forward. The average age profile of a farmer is somewhere in the early 60s. That obviously has to change. One of the things that we can be encouraged by is the fact that we have had so many people who feel that they are eligible for the young farmers' scheme under the new common agricultural policy. That shows that we have quite a significant number of people who are head of holding and are taking over farms. We have never seen that age profile before. We now have supports in place. We have put the maximum amount of support in place for the top-up to the single farm payment for the young farmer. That has obviously been a factor, in that it is perhaps time for some people to move aside and let the younger people in the family come on to the farm. I am quite enthused by that.

Committee Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly takes note of the draft Budget 2015-16 announced on Monday 3 November 2014 by the Minister of Finance and Personnel. — [Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel).]

Ms Lo (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment): I welcome the opportunity to outline the views of the Environment Committee on the draft Budget for 2015-16. I will refer to the information provided by departmental officials when they briefed the Committee on 27 November 2014 on the possible impact on the DOE budget since the Committee has not yet had any details on the more recent Budget agreement.

The Committee raised concerns about a number of issues. Most significantly, officials indicated that at least 500 staff, representing around one third of the workforce, would need to be released to stabilise the Department's medium-term financial position. The proposed exit scheme will not be targeted at specific grades or posts, so the Committee believes that that may result in a disproportionate loss of more experienced staff, particularly as DOE has a large number of staff at professional and technical grades, rather than general administrative staff. Such a policy may prove more costly in the longer term if that expertise is lost to the Department and has to be bought in subsequently. It was suggested to officials that a strategic review should be undertaken first to identify essential areas of business and that, as far as possible, the Department should prioritise the delivery of front-line services. The Committee also considered the wider implications for the economy of the loss of those public-sector posts, particularly at a time when there are not yet sufficient private-sector posts available to compensate for the job losses. Some Committee members suggested that there should be a more gradual reduction in staff numbers rather than an immediate and widespread cut.

On the impact on local government, departmental officials indicated that the application of the 15·1% reduction in the draft Budget proposals will result in a shortfall of £3·9 million in the derating grant to local councils and of £2·8 million in rate support grants to less-well-off councils. Committee members expressed their concerns that councils in the north-west would be hit disproportionately by budget cuts and forced either to reduce their service delivery or to increase rates. A balance of £1·2 million still had to be allocated. The Committee was extremely concerned that road safety education be deemed a priority, particularly in view of the rising level of road fatalities and the imminent implementation of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill.

Members were also concerned to learn that no match funding for future EU programmes has been provided in the draft Budget. The Committee has been urging the Department to maximise its update of funding opportunities, and match funding is an essential element of the effective use of such opportunities.

This may also impact on environmental research posts, such as those in the ReNEW project, and on jobs in the community and voluntary sector. The Committee is very much aware of the Department's reliance on community and voluntary organisations and believes that this partnership results in a more effective use of the available funding.

Committee members were particularly concerned that rural areas may suffer a disproportionate impact from proposed budget cuts. The Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, when enacted, will have a greater impact on rural young people than those who can avail themselves of public transport in urban areas, and the dangers of rural roads may increase through a reduction in road safety advertisements.

Moving on to capital funding, Committee members expressed some reservations regarding the proposed use of financial transactions capital for the Arc21 development since this project has not yet received planning permission. Officials were clear that this funding allocation would not influence the outcome of the planning application, but members believed that there was an element of presumption in such a specific allocation of funding by the Executive.

I now wish to say a few words on behalf of the Alliance Party. My party colleague Mrs Cochrane will speak more comprehensively on this issue later on. Northern Ireland's public finances are currently unsustainable. We recognise that some cuts to public spending are necessary as our block grant is reduced. However, Alliance is concerned at the absence of a sufficiently strategic approach to the draft Budget and that allocations have been made based more on historical spending measures than any objective assessment of need. A key challenge is the cost of division. There are the direct costs of policing riots, civil disturbances and parades, the distortions to policing that arise from the security threat and the cost to a wide range of agencies in repairing damaged buildings and facilities. There are the indirect costs of providing duplicate goods, facilities and services for separate sections of the community, costs that are borne by the public sector and the private sector. There are also opportunities lost from inward investment and tourism. It is essential —

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

Ms Lo: — that the Executive acknowledge the cost of division.

Miss M McIlveen (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I will begin with a few remarks on behalf of the Education Committee. I am aware, of course, that this is a draft Budget and is likely to be subject to some change. The Education Committee is disappointed by the very limited information provided for scrutiny of the Department of Education's draft budget and the highly compressed timescale for consideration of what is a challenging draft budget. I also want to acknowledge the very large number of letters and petitions. Over 1,700 individual items were received by the Committee on the draft budget within the last two weeks.

There are four areas that I wish to highlight. The first is schools. This is a complex picture. For a start, the Education Department seems to be proposing the "baselining" of additions made to the common funding scheme earlier in 2014 of £10 million for targeting social need plus £15·8 million plus other small sums previously identified as transitional funding. The Department then proposes to increase targeting social need by another £10 million while reducing the aggregated schools budget by £78·7 million.

When all of this is added up, it may appear to amount to a small change to an overall budget of about £1 billion for schools, however this masks the individual impacts on schools, some of which calculate the reduction in their budgets to be in hundreds of thousands of pounds. As with previous changes to the common funding scheme, the Committee has been denied the information that would permit it to consider the aggregate impact of the budget proposals by sector. It is also not completely clear whether all of the £78·7 million cut in schools funding will be met through reductions in the age-weighted pupil unit. The Committee has therefore sought assurance that the 2015-16 Budget will not be used to provide cover for further amendment of the common funding scheme, with unknown consequences for sectors and rural communities.

Secondly in relation to jobs, in oral but not written evidence, officials referenced a cut in the number of jobs by 2,500 — 1,000 teaching and 1,500 non-teaching. It was suggested that an attempt should be made to complete the bulk of the necessary redundancies by 1 April 2015. It is simply not possible for any large organisation, private or public, to achieve a 5% reduction in its workforce within that timescale. When consideration is given to the chaos that such a measure would create in schools, particularly around time-scaling and existing course commitments, compounded by the difficulties that the Education Department experienced when it was managing a much smaller number of redundancies in 2014, it seems highly unlikely that that was ever a serious proposal.

It is unclear why the Department adopted that strategy and made those pronouncements. I can only speculate as to what it hoped to achieve and what officials thought the impact on teachers' morale would be. The Committee is very dissatisfied with that critical aspect of the draft Budget process.

On the funding of policies, initiatives and other organisations, the Committee struggled to fulfil its scrutiny role, given the lack of supporting information. Again, that is extremely unsatisfactory. The Committee noted the apparent lack of a strategic approach. For example, the Education Department proposes to decrease special educational needs capacity development for teachers while at the same time increasing support for SEN services. The Committee would naturally support the latter, given, for example, the 67% increase in the number of schoolchildren diagnosed with autism in the last five years. With that in mind, the former makes no sense at all and appears to be counterintuitive. Hard decisions are required on budgets, but common sense, consistency and fairness are also required.

The Education Department was quite circumspect about the funding of third-party organisations. Officials highlighted cuts to departmental administrative spending of 9%, but did not appear to mention what I understand to be considerably larger cuts to third-party and sectoral organisations. The draft Budget includes references to efficiency improvements for school catering, yet, incredibly, it does not reference the relevant PEDU reports. Given the size of the challenge facing the Education Department, it was also surprising that there was no reference to the change fund or European Investment Bank projects.

Finally, I would like to talk about pensions. The Northern Ireland teachers' pension scheme has significant liabilities. Those liabilities are to be revalued. The increase in employer contributions may consume a sizeable proportion of the £133 million central fund. No information has been provided to the Committee on that subject as yet, nor on the recurrent costs associated with employers' contributions in future years.

Those examples illustrate the very unsatisfactory nature of the information provided by the Department of Education to the Committee on critical policy and financial matters, and the difficulty that the Committee has had in undertaking its scrutiny function.

This was always going to be a difficult Budget. It represents a sea change in education in Northern Ireland, and the required hard decisions should be made in a transparent manner. They should be sensible and defendable, and should protect front-line services where possible. To ensure that that happens, all relevant information must be made available to stakeholders and the Education Committee in a manner that allows analysis and time for consideration and amendment.

I would just like to add a few words as a DUP MLA. One of the fundamental problems that run through what I have said up to this point is that the school timetable runs across two financial years. Timetables have been set and funds have been allocated. Cuts to the classroom at this time pull the rug from beneath principals and undermine the teaching of the children. The stress that that has placed on principals in managing budgets, concern about classroom provision and managing staff morale is incredible. I am deeply concerned about how that has been handled and by the comments of departmental officials. There is a fundamental need to protect the classroom, and I believe that there are ways in which the Department can ensure that finances are directed there.

Time is limited today, and I will expand on that in tomorrow's debate on the issue.

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

Miss M McIlveen: It has been shown that when education budgets are placed in the hands of schools, they have been spent more effectively and efficiently. We want to see that freedom of management rolled across schools. That way, we can see the majority of the education budget —

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

Miss M McIlveen: — being spent in the best interests of our children and young people.


3.45 pm

Ms Maeve McLaughlin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, I want to reflect on the Committee's findings on the draft Budget. I particularly want to focus on the issue of strategic priorities. When the former Minister briefed the Committee in September regarding the 2014-15 financial position and his request to the Executive at that stage for an additional £160 million, he stated that the areas of spend that he was going to have to pull back on, which we are now witnessing, were not in any way strategic but were simply based on stopping money where it was not contractually committed.

Those remarks made it clear to the Committee that the Department has an understanding that if spend has to be curtailed, there are areas in which it can be targeted that will not undermine its strategic priorities. We were told that, for 2014-15, there was not sufficient time left in the financial year to do that. However, that should not have been the case for the 2015-16 Budget, given that the Department is fully aware of the pressures that it is facing, including a 6% to 7% increase in demand from the trusts. Therefore, the Committee believes that the Department should be in a position to approach the draft Budget in a planned and strategic manner so that the allocation that it receives is spent on priorities rather than on things that are simply committed to at an early stage of the financial year.

The Minister advised the Committee that his top two strategic priorities are the provision of high-quality front-line care and the implementation of Transforming Your Care. Whilst the Committee has no issue with those as priorities, it is clearly concerned that the priorities are not reflected in the Department's approach to allocating its budget. The Department's emphasis seems to be more on using the budget to maintain existing services. Whilst the Committee accepts that the Department is required to provide certain services to fulfil its statutory obligations, it believes that more consideration could be given to how those services are provided. That should not be limited to whether the service is being provided in a resource-effective manner or whether it provides value for money; rather, we need to look at the outcomes of the services and whether they provide high-quality front-line care and whether they reflect the principles of Transforming Your Care. So, when the Minister told us during a recent evidence session:

"At the moment, I do not know if we will have the luxury in the next 18 months to have much strategic thinking on this. Unless something changes radically, we are going to spend most of our time trying to balance the books",

we were concerned that the strategic priorities are not driving how the money will be allocated. Indeed, one of the expert witnesses who appeared in front of the Committee recently described the Minister's separation of strategy from spending as disturbing.

Given that the provision of high-quality front-line care is the Minister's number one strategic priority, the Committee asked the Department for its definition of front-line services, and we were quite surprised when officials informed us that they do not have a ready definition. Without such a definition, therefore, the Committee is not clear how the Department will ensure that resources are directed to that end or how it will ensure now that the additional £200 million for 2015-16 will be spent as intended by the Executive.

We know that the Finance Minister announced that an oversight mechanism will now be developed to monitor how that £200 million will be spent. As a Committee, we think that is important to ensure that the maximum benefit in health outcomes is achieved from that additional resource. However, we have no further details from the Department of Finance or the Department of Health as to what that oversight mechanism may look like.

I would like now to address my remaining comments as a Sinn Féin MLA. It is important to reflect that health has been protected in this ongoing round of discussions, with the additional £200 million that has been allocated in 2015-16 and the £80 million allocated in the monitoring rounds. The big discussion in health is whether the current spend is going in the right directions to ensure maximum health provision and outcomes. On two separate occasions, the Finance Minister referred to his concerns around the management of the current health budget. We have now ensured, thankfully, that additional oversight is in place on how this budget will be allocated, but the Health Minister does need to take the tough decisions. It is, in effect, poor leadership when we are told that a Minister wants to protect front-line services, but then his very Department admits that it does not have a definition of such services.

Mr McCarthy: I am very grateful to the Member for giving way. Does she agree that this Assembly should have great concern in view of the fact that we have just come through a crisis in A&E? Do we have a Health Minister? He has not been seen since the crisis came about. Given what the Member has just said, we should all be concerned that the Minister is around to oversee what is happening.

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

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, I certainly agree that the Minister's silence has been deafening over the past week or 10 days. I would hope that, in the next 24 to 48 hours, he will step up to the plate on a number of issues.

It is right that the Minister is there to provide strategic leadership. He needs to increase investment to community and primary care and preventative models of care. Only £25 million has been shifted from acute to community care. Is it therefore any wonder that emergency departments are in crisis when we are not investing in alternative models of preventative care? Again, we note the issue of protection of front-line services, but in the very same week, the Minister allowed trusts to bring forward proposals that slashed the very services that were needed. We have seen the issues around the proposed closure of Dalriada, the decision to cut home care for over 500 elderly people and the decision now, wrongly, to close the respite facility at The Cottages in my constituency. These decisions are contrary to the policy of Transforming Your Care and have not been subject to proper equality impact assessments.

There has been a 20% increase in administration in health and social care. The Minister therefore needs to initiate a robust root-and-branch review of the health and social care system. There is over-administration, duplication of commissioning and a lack of transparency and accountability in decision-making. We must have the debate around the current spend going in the right directions. There is £34 million going to senior consultants' bonuses; £55 million to £65 million every year to the independent sector; and £134 million to the private sector over three years. Is this value for money? The Minister must bring forward proposals for revenue generation. We need proposals on generic medicines, the sale of real estate and savings on all-Ireland working as recommended in 2009.

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

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Health cannot stagger from crisis to crisis. The Minister now has the opportunity to provide that leadership and take the tough decisions.

Mr McQuillan: We unfortunately continue to live in difficult economic times. However, some positive growth is emerging, which we should work to strengthen and grow further. Unemployment is thankfully on the decline. While this offers a general positive outlook, I appreciate that it may not be felt on the ground by those who are without employment.

The overall picture of the draft Budget points to one of more pain five years after the comprehensive spending review. This pain is reflected through cuts imposed by Westminster to the block grant, in sharing the economic burden and reducing the deficit. However, we must be realistic and take the positive from this Budget, which is the very fact that it exists. While its content is not necessarily good reading, it is a statement of fact in reflection of the need for the Executive to make savings and efficiencies. The need to make savings is known to many hard-working families outside this place who, for too long now, have had to make choices based on economic circumstances; to heat or to eat, for example. Our only way out of this is to ensure that we continue along a path of economic growth which was present in 2014 and is expected to be present in 2015. Growth is and will be slow, but it is happening.

I want to see these stories of economic growth emerging in east Londonderry, which, in 2014, was the victim of the loss of the DVA office in Coleraine, which was moved to Swansea. This is why I have endorsed the increased budget for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in order to deliver more economic growth through securing foreign direct investment and, in turn, jobs. Manufacturing has taken a major hit in recent years, and while there has been some growth in the sector, I would like to see more, along with growth in construction, another sector that has suffered tremendous losses in recent years.
I am pleased to see that our Executive and my party have protected front-line services in health. An increase in the overall health budget, which currently represents the largest portion of the Budget, is a huge thing, reflecting not only a commitment by the Minister and the Executive but a willingness to limit the economic pain being felt on the front line. At this moment, I want to express my appreciation to all those health workers on the front line who deal with the pressure of the job along with showing care and compassion for those who they look after. They are a credit to society and the health and social care system.

I, like others, want to see Northern Ireland become an economic driver and net contributor to the UK as a whole. The Stormont House Agreement makes light of this objective in what is promised in the economic package.

I will continue to support the draft Budget and commend it to the House. While we might see other parties jump up and down to condemn it, I ask this: could they have done better?

Mr Maskey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Speaking on behalf of the Social Development Committee, I want to first thank the Finance and Personnel Committee for tabling the motion today. It is an opportunity for Committees and Members to put a number of positions to the House and for Members to take note whilst deliberations are ongoing — hopefully concluding shortly — to agree a final Budget proposal to come to the House for proper and full debate.

The Finance Committee requested that all Statutory Committees provide a submission, if they wished to do so, by Friday 5 December. The Department officials were with us on Thursday 4 December. Therefore, the Committee did not have an awful lot of time in which to respond to the briefing in any real detail. However, it is fair to say that some of the detail we got from Department officials was necessarily vague. Certainly the Committee did ask for further information, and I will go through that in a moment or two. We want to thank the officials for coming to the Committee on 4 December, on behalf of the Minister, to provide a briefing on the proposals. They made it very clear that they were draft proposals and of course the Committee makes all its comments in that context. Hopefully it will not end up that these are the final proposals for the Budget.

The Committee acknowledged the difficult position that the Department and the Minister were in. As a Committee, we recognise that there is a smaller amount of money in the block grant from which we can provide the types of services that people have become rightly and justifiably used to receiving over the last number of years. We anticipated that none of us could, with hand on heart, entirely welcome the draft Budget proposals. We will probably find that the Budget itself is difficult. It is a one-year Budget; we know the reasons for that, and I do not want to rehearse all the arguments that a number of Members put forward earlier in the debate and that others will no doubt make following my presentation. Suffice to say, the Committee was concerned with a number of the proposals. The Committee agreed to respond and submitted a formal response to the Finance and Personnel Committee. That is a matter of record.

The Committee was pleased when Department officials made it clear, on behalf of the Minister, that they wanted to protect the social fund, the Supporting People programme, the provision of social housing, community need and disadvantaged communities. However, there were of course a number of proposals in the draft Budget that contained a reduction in public-sector jobs and cuts across the range of the Department; for example, to housing, the Social Security Agency and the community sector. The Committee was very keen to hear more information on the jobs projected to be lost. The Department officials gave figures of several hundred. Having queried it, I think that members were a little surprised to hear that. Maybe the information could have been more fulsome, but maybe part of the nature of the beast is that there needs to be a lot more discussion across all Departments. Since it is going to be done on the basis of a voluntary severance scheme, it is not yet clear, from Department to Department, where all the job reductions may come from.

Officials presented projections that several hundred jobs would go. When that was queried, we were told that some of the jobs were "posts". I asked what that actually meant and was told that there are jobs, then there are posts and then there are vacancies. Jobs have people in them, and others are posts that are sometime vacant. We asked the department to come back as early as possible to give a clearer definition of what all that means. Are hundreds of posts unfilled? Do they need to be filled, or should they be written off the baseline? That is a big discussion that needs to be had across the public sector, and we are keen to hear more information about that.


4.00 pm

We were certainly led to believe that a reduction in the number of posts would clearly have an impact on services. While the cuts imposed on the Social Security Agency, for example, would have no impact at all on benefit claimants, it certainly would impact on the service delivered and how long it might take to resolve claims and so on. That could have some impacts.

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

As I said, the Committee's response to the Department made it clear that it was very concerned that cuts to disadvantaged communities, if you like, could be much more devastating. In an area of disadvantage, which the Department has a statutory obligation to tackle, a small amount of money taken from a project could kill it off; for example, the loss of one post could kill off an entire project. There are choices to be made. We welcome the fact that the Minister and his officials were clear that they wanted to protect the most vulnerable sectors of our community, and we say that those choices have to be made and, hopefully, the Department and the Minister, in conjunction with the Minister of Finance, can meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities. As I said, the Committee looks forward to hearing the outworking of the Budget discussions, which we will no doubt hear fairly soon. The Committee recognises the difficult position that the Department and the Minister are in but makes it very clear that it also wants the most vulnerable to be protected in the communities that we all collectively represent.

I will say a few words on behalf of my party. All of us know that this is a difficult Budget. It is a one-year Budget. We know that it is the result of years of British government cuts coming directly from London to our block grant. That is an inescapable. When we talk about "inescapables", that is one of them. Any party or representative in the House who wishes to acknowledge or suggest otherwise or to blame people in the Chamber, for I have no doubt that all the Ministers want to provide the best services possible to our communities —

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

Mr Maskey: We recognise that the Budget cuts come directly from London. The unity of purpose shown in the recent talks proves that, when all the parties here work together, we can get a better result and a better deal for the people we represent. Long may that continue and be improved on.

Mr McKinney: I welcome the opportunity to take part in today's debate on such an important issue, and I do so as the health spokesperson for the SDLP, commenting on the health aspect of the Budget.

We are debating the draft Budget presented for 2015-16, but the actual context was set in 2011. The SDLP said then that there was not enough money for health, and I think that we have been proved right. The shortfalls in money have had a growing negative impact, which is now reaching its climax. Forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you have heard some of this before, but just because it is repeated does not mean that there is a weakness in the argument, quite the contrary.

In 2011, the health authorities knew that there were problems on the horizon, which is why a plan was put in place that recognised those problems. While we saw a privatisation agenda in that, much of the core analysis was not wrong. It identified areas of growing concern, which were the expense of hospital costs and weaknesses in community provision. The problem was that the Budget was already set, so they had no money to pay for it. TYC was not strangled at birth, but it certainly was deprived of oxygen. Basically, that has been the narrative ever since. The biggest change plan at the heart of the health service for years recognised the major and emerging strains that were coming down the track but did not have the money to deal with them, except out of in-year monitoring. We all know where that is now. You wouldn't, to use a colloquial phrase, bet the farm on getting anything out of that now.

The health service continues to provide a service, but it does not have at its core a properly funded and managed strategy to deal with the growing strains in the system, and this Budget does not do anything about that. We do not have to look too far to see where those strains are. In the past few days, we have seen the headlines; we have witnessed extensive waiting times at A&E departments across the North; and we have seen a curtailment of elective care provision, with the cancellation of nearly 180 appointments across all trusts in the past few weeks. Those are just the most recent headlines. The year has been dominated by them. In fact, 2014 started with a crisis that the Department desperately tried to convince us was a one-off. If I read the headlines in the papers correctly, even yesterday, it seems that the health authorities have learned absolutely nothing and are calling this a unique spike. It is not a spike; it is a result of a failure of strategic thinking.

When we look at the statistics, we sometimes miss out on the personal impact — the stories behind the headlines. May I quote one line from an email sent to my office this week? It is from somebody who had their operation cancelled at the last minute, with very short notice. The person said:

"I am devastated. I am so ill at the moment, and now I have no idea when this hell will end".

There are personal stories about the impacts that this failure of strategic thinking has on our ill and vulnerable citizens.

I will make a point that I feel compelled to make during all these health debates: there is a need to differentiate between those who work in the system and those who set up the system and created the failures in it. I would like to praise our doctors, nurses and ancillary staff for the tremendous effort that they put into ensuring that we are looked after no matter what — be it a minor ailment or major surgery. Our health personnel are among the best, and they want to deliver the best. It is the system that is broken and puts them, the patients and the public under such strain. I have said before that the crisis witnessed in our A&E departments is the symptom, not the cause, of a failed approach to the health system and health finances.

Although we welcome the £200 million of additional funding to protect our front-line services, we will not see the delivery of the core strategic plan. In its current form, it is destined for failure. We have to ask at what cost. Remember that it is still being funded, but it is not delivering. So, at what point does the plan become the drain on resources rather than the solution to the problem? This is evident from the fact that the £70 million required for its implementation over a supposedly three- to five-year period has not been delivered: £38 million has, and £15 million to £17 million has been set aside in this Budget. In recent comments to the Committee, the Health Minister talked about it no longer being a five-year plan but a 10-year plan. Our Programme for Government target — a shift left of £83 million from the hospital-based community — has not been met.

If one thing sums up the lack of strategy, it is the way that the trusts set about the savings plans towards the end of the year. There is a complete lack of strategic focus, but there is, of course, a focus on the bottom line. Remember what TYC said on investing in community and compare that with some of the decisions that individual trusts made to meet their bottom line. They have been referred to before. Even when the decisions were made, some, such as that about Bangor's minor injuries unit, were quickly reversed. That underscores the fact that there was not a strategic focus. Of course, we have Dalriada, among others.

Frankly, I am bewildered when it comes to health service strategic decision-making. Before Christmas, the board told us that individual cuts were the trusts' responsibility. After Christmas, it was clear that the trusts had been told that the approach was to cut elective care procedures. Who is running the system? Added to the contradictions around strategy is a plan to protect the front line and a plan to cut funding to arm's-length bodies, of which the Fire Service is one. How mad is that? If the Fire Service is not front-line, nobody is.

One of the biggest issues for me is the need to ensure that all appropriate options for savings are considered. Significant waste has been identified in the health service. I will reiterate the examples once again: £50 million was spent on bank and agency staff, 30% of which went to private administrators, not the front line; £50 million was spent on sickness; £40 million was spent on fraud; and, between them, patients and hospitals cancelled 360,000 appointments last year. That is a failure in the system. As I have repeated here on numerous occasions, we have to pay for some of those situations twice because we have to buy in the private sector to shorten the queues.

Missing from all this is a comprehensive strategy that fundamentally recognises —

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

Mr McKinney: — just as the Stormont House Agreement did, that we have legacy issues that need to be resolved. We need a joined-up government approach to deal with those matters, because Health cannot deal with those issues that are, ultimately, creating the demand in the system.

Mr Swann (The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning): I welcome the opportunity to outline the Committee for Employment and Learning's considered views of the 2015-16 Budget.

As with all Committees, the time for scrutiny of the draft Budget's impact on the Department was short. The Budget's fluid position over the Christmas period was such that Committees were initially considering the broader picture in the absence of the relative detail from all Departments. Although there was an eight-week consultation on the draft Budget from the Minister of Finance and Personnel's statement on 3 November, the process for responding and the implications for each Department were still filtering through close to the deadline for responses.

The Committee for Employment and Learning, however, began its informal discussions, immediately meeting with the three Northern Ireland universities, the University and College Union (UCU) and Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) on the possible impact of the proposed budget cuts. The Committee has also received written responses in the consultation on the draft Budget from Queen's University Belfast, the University of Ulster, the Open University, Stranmillis University College, St Mary's University College and Colleges NI.

On 4 November, during an informal meeting with the heads of the three universities, the vice chancellor of the University of Ulster and the vice chancellor of Queen's University Belfast advised that, between them, the proposed cuts could lead to a loss of 1,100 university places. They said 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 the UCU on the effects 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.

On 19 November, in the absence of a paper from the Department for Employment and Learning on the outworkings of the proposed cuts, the Committee discussed areas that it wished the Minister to clarify. Minister Farry briefed the Committee on the Budget on 26 November and returned for a further briefing on 10 December, after his draft departmental budget had been published. During the briefings, the Minister outlined his Department's financial situation for the coming year. He advised that, although the proposed Budget referred to a reduction to his Department of 10·8%, or £82 million, the actual impact will be 16·7%, as he is already implementing £35 million in cuts from the 2014-15 budget.

The Minister informed the Committee that, through his savings delivery plans, he has identified approximately £33 million of the £82 million in savings, leaving a shortfall of £49 million. He said that his options are limited, given contractual arrangements and his intention to protect certain core areas, such as the shared skills programme, narrow STEM provision in universities and colleges and the continued development of the apprenticeship and youth training strategies.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Member for giving way. The figures that he highlighted are quite significant. Can he give us any indication of what impact they would have, particularly on the regional colleges? I have been lobbied quite strongly by staff and those who use the South West College in Enniskillen, Fermanagh, Dungannon, Cookstown and Omagh. I just wonder whether he can give us any indication of what sort of impact that would have.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member has an additional minute.

Mr Swann: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank the Member for his question. It became apparent from the Minister's presentation that the further education colleges were going to lose 16,000 places, mostly at level 1, and that there would be a reduction of 500 staff. So, there is going to be a dramatic effect across higher education (HE) and further education (FE). Up to 17,000 young people will be left, as the Minister said that day, with no plan B for where they go once they leave school.

The Minister also advised that he hoped that there would be room for more money in the final Budget from the Executive for the Department. Given the central focus in the Programme for Government on the economy, the Minister believes that the Executive will give a fair hearing to a certain amount of protection for the Department for Employment and Learning if more money becomes available. The Committee supports that approach. I think that the Finance Minister had indicated that the Department for Employment and Learning could be looked on favourably if Barnett consequentials were to come forward. However, the Minister was unable to provide any detailed answers to members' questions on what the impact would be on staff and services, but, based on a 10% reduction within his own Department, there could be reductions in staff of up to 400. That would lead to some services in the Department being discontinued.


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The Committee asked the Minister why he was asking the further and higher education sector to plan for cuts when he had already identified £33 million of in-house cuts. He said that he was working with colleges and universities to mitigate the impact of the 10·8% cut or to reduce that cut, with the primary objective of protecting as many front-line services as he possibly could. He identified that approximately 70% of his budget goes directly to the colleges and universities, which, because of their status as autonomous bodies, have responsibility for their allocated budgets, and it is up to them how that falls into place.

The Committee asked what the impact would be. First, there would be job losses, but 17,000 places would be taken away from young people when they left school. The Committee asked what was being done to mitigate the effect, and the Minister was quite clear in pointing out that there was no fallback position. He was clear in his view when he told the Committee that:

"if we end up in a situation where we are removing places, we are denying life-changing opportunities to young people that would help them progress up the skills ladder, access employment in due course and engage with the labour market."

The Committee is also clear that a number of those young people will leave Northern Ireland and that that will seriously impact on the marketing of Northern Ireland as a place with a young, trained workforce. The pressure on those not in education, employment or training, a group that the Committee has tried hard to help, will be vastly increased. Students who cannot afford the £9,000 fees will not be able to go to Great Britain to study. When the Committee asked the Minister whether he had any plans to increase student tuition fees, he said that that, in his opinion, was a viable option for the future.

A £2·2 million cut to the teacher training colleges was also highlighted in the Minister's £33 million savings. The Minister stated that no agreement had been reached on that issue. In response to questions about the impact on Northern Ireland's two teaching institutions, Stranmillis University College and St Mary's University College, the Minister pointed out that he has taken the decision to remove the small-scale premia and special institution premia that had been paid to St Mary's and Stranmillis. He also said that he was aware that:

"That will have a major impact on Stranmillis and St Mary's."

There is a concern that although the international report on teacher training is already out there and not yet complete, the Minister has used this Budget to bring forward his political agenda.

One of the main issues raised by the community and voluntary sector was to do with the European social fund. The Minister has indicated that he intends to use part of that fund to increase and support his own core departmental projects. That has caused wide concern in the community and voluntary sector across Northern Ireland. We have had representations from the sector at the Committee, and I know that departmental officials have met representatives of the sector to address some of the concerns that have been raised.

In conclusion, we hope that the Minister fully explores the utilisation of additional funding streams that are available —

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

Mr Swann: — such as the change fund, to assist him in his task. The Committee also urges the Executive to look to the long-term impacts of damaging our education, skills and training base.

Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): I will speak as Chairman of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and will represent the views of that Committee. The Committee received a copy of the DARD consultation document on the Budget on Friday 21 November 2014 and took evidence from DARD officials on the Budget on Tuesday 25 November 2014. The Committee was pleased to note that DARD was one of the first Departments to produce its budget plan. The Committee noted that officials had stated that the Budget reduction faced by the Department was as a result of a reduction in the block grant from the UK Government.

In carrying out its scrutiny of the plan, the Committee noted the following issues and concerns. First, and most important, the Committee is adamant that front-line services to farmers and wider rural communities should not be affected. That is with particular, but not exclusive, reference to the new basic payment under common agricultural policy reform. The Committee indicated that at least a continuation of the level of service regarding payments to farmers was its first and main priority. The Committee received assurances from DARD officials that the basic payment system is also the number one priority for the Minister and the Department. In exploring this further, the Committee questioned officials on the proposals for staff reductions and received assurances that the reductions in staff numbers would not affect the payment timetable.

That leads me to my second point regarding staff reductions. The Committee noted that the DARD proposal to reduce staff posts in the core Department by 300 would provide a saving of £5·6 million. The Committee agreed that that should be done on the basis of a voluntary exit scheme. The Committee noted that the DARD core Department has 2,650 staff and that the reduction would therefore represent just under 10% of all posts. DARD officials indicated to the Committee that the £100 million for workforce reduction, as outlined in the DFP ministerial statement on the Budget, was to cover the entire NICS and its arm's-length bodies.

The full details of the scheme are unknown, with details not likely to be available in the short term. DARD officials also indicated that they expected additional staff post reductions to arise from AFBI and CAFRE but were unable to quantify what those reductions might be. The challenge with staff reductions will be to ensure that essential business continues as normal. The Committee heard that DARD intended to put more of its services and interactions with customers online so as to release staff posts.

The Committee expressed concern that there was insufficient funding in the £100 million pot from DFP for workforce restructuring to cover all the NICS and the arm's-length bodies. It is the opinion of the Committee that the workforce restructure fund is likely to be oversubscribed. That will make it difficult for DARD, AFBI and CAFRE to realise their reductions without substantial additional costs to the Department's own budget lines. The Committee emphasises that the priority is to ensure that front-line services to farmers, particularly the basic payments, are not affected by the staff post reductions. Although the Committee acknowledged that DARD has recognised the risks associated with the staff reductions, it felt that DARD had not thought through clearly what it may have to do if the full scope of the workforce restructuring plan is not realised. It is not an immediate requirement, but the Committee would encourage DARD to create and put into the public domain the contingencies that it would consider if the full £5·6 million of savings could not be realised in 2015-16.

The next major issue that I want to cover is the Northern Ireland food animal information system (NIFAIS), which is the replacement IT system for the animal and public health information system (APHIS). The Committee had a full and frank discussion on NIFAIS with officials and asked for further information. The Committee is not convinced that NIFAIS in its current format represents value for money and urges the Minister to revisit the programme to ensure that it is fit for purpose and has not got unnecessary elements built in. The Committee remains to be convinced that what is proposed by DARD is not a Rolls-Royce model.

Farm inspections are an important aspect of the work of DARD and other agencies to ensure compliance with EU legislation. The Committee is of the opinion that further work could be done to drive efficiencies in that area. We would like to see inspecting officials coordinating their efforts, in order to create, where possible, a scenario where a farmer has one visit in which all his inspections are done. The Committee is also of the opinion that other agencies with an inspecting role, such as NIEA, could have their functions transferred to DARD to enable and facilitate a coordinating inspecting role. That would ultimately generate efficiency savings. The Committee strongly recommends that the Department engage with DOE on the issue of a single inspection mechanism with NIEA.

The Committee noted that administration costs had risen between 2011-12 and 2014-15. When questioning officials on that, the Committee noted that the increase appeared to be attributed to two causes: increasing pay inflation and pension costs and increasing staff levels. The Committee agreed that it was not content with that and would urge the Minister to ensure that, notwithstanding the reduction of 300 staff posts, a close watching brief be kept on administration costs to ensure that they are reduced immediately.

The Committee noted that it is DARD's intention to raise additional revenues through its veterinary service seeking a further £4 million from EU veterinary fund receipts and from AFBI generating £2 million from external sources, including Horizon 2020. On the potential to generate a further £4 million from the EU veterinary fund, the Committee asked why, if it was available, it had not been applied for in previous years.

Regarding the potential for AFBI to raise an additional £2 million, the Committee heard, as a result of a recent PAC investigation, that there may be an increase in the rates charged by AFBI. However, it is the Committee's understanding that DARD is one of the biggest customers of such services, and any increase in prices may ultimately create an increased bill for DARD.

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

Mr Irwin: The ultimate cost saving to overall departmental resources could, in such a scenario, be minimal. The Committee was disappointed that that angle had not been properly explored. The Committee noted, with disappointment, that —

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

Mr Irwin: — the plan held very little information on how the budget cuts and savings could be implemented by the arm's-length bodies.

Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate.

We continue to face tough choices because of the sustained and persistent cuts to our Budget imposed by the Westminster Government. Those cuts have reduced the allocation of funding to our Executive, and it is in that context of reduced finances that the Executive have chosen to defend core services.

The limited fiscal and economic powers available to the North of Ireland limit the extent to which we can address budgetary challenges, provide public services and tackle unemployment. All fiscal, economic and other powers should be transferred to the North. Any claim that our political institutions or politicians would not be fit for purpose is entirely spurious. Full transfer of powers to our institutions makes economic sense. Politicians, businesspeople, workers and families who live here should make the decisions about our future, not a Cabinet of Tory millionaires who know nothing and care less about the challenges and day-to-day struggles of ordinary people here in the North. Do we really want to remain within the constraints of a Westminster economic and fiscal system that has short-changed us in every Budget and remain bound by the economic decisions of a Tory Administration who are locking us further into a no-growth austerity agenda? We could make the vital decisions to stimulate our local economy that would allow us to build the local economy and unleash the potential from an all-Ireland economy — an all-island economy.

Westminster promises only further poverty. Sinn Féin is committed to transforming the life chances of our people, but Westminster wants to keep our people in their place. Our economy needs investment not cuts, but budget cuts have become the price of economic governance from Westminster. Every person struggling with the impact of poverty is a member of our society who is unable to play their full part in economic life. All this does is hold back our efforts to build a stronger and more equal economy in which all have the opportunity to flourish.

Without powers over tax, benefits and employment for the North, we can never fully balance our books, deliver employment and social welfare or grow the local economy to its full potential. We have been promised powers over corporation tax, but that is only part of the picture. We lack the authority over income tax and National Insurance and are constrained in our ability to use those powers to make starting and developing a business or hiring new employees that much easier. We do not have the powers to develop a progressive taxation system to ensure our economy is balanced. We cannot adjust VAT rates to support our tourism and hospitality sectors or encourage investment in repairs and maintenance, which would support the construction sector and local communities.

We do not even have any influence over the Crown Estate commissioners, who manage our seabed and foreshore, yet it is companies here in the North that are developing and investing in the technology to capture the wave and tidal power around our shores. Control of our seabed would allow us to fully coordinate the efforts of manufacturers, the energy industry and those involved in regulation and planning to help deliver the full benefits of a marine renewable energy revolution for the North.


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With control of the tax and benefits system, we could create a fair regime for workers that builds real participation in work and removes the poverty traps. There is no point hiding behind estimations of the fiscal deficit. The only way to close the fiscal gap is to build a fiscal economy strategy for local needs, free from the scourge of Tory-driven austerity. Access to full fiscal and economic powers would allow us to use the combined powers over business investment, employment creation, taxation and welfare to secure stronger levels of economic growth, from which all the people of the North and this island could benefit. The levers of fiscal and economic responsibility will enable us to put the local economy on the right footing to tackle the long-term challenges of inequality and the need to secure greater prosperity for all our people.

It is our people who are bearing the cost of the Tory economic policy through reduced wage growth. Working people are thousands of pounds worse off than they were in 2010, and there is a cost of living crisis here. Standing still and passively accepting cut upon cut from the Westminster Administration will achieve little. Fiscal devolution is not the alleged moral hazard of spending money that we do not raise. It is the ability to travel in a different direction without suffering the full financial consequences of decisions taken on public services in England. We must embrace the process for change and create genuine ownership of the economy by the people.

Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): As this is my first opportunity to speak in the capacity of Chair, I wish to acknowledge the work of my predecessor, Paul Givan, who was Chair for the past three years. During that time, of course, there was regular scrutiny of the Department of Justice budget and savings plans. More recently, the Committee has spent some time considering the 2015-16 draft budget proposals.

Unfortunately, as other Chairs have indicated, there is a lack of detailed information available from the Minister on the proposed allocations and likely implications. Therefore, it has been impossible for the Committee to properly examine and reach definitive conclusions on the Department of Justice draft budget at this time. It is also regrettable that the Department did not publish detailed spending allocations and savings plans for each area, agency and NDPB before the consultation closed on 29 December 2014, to enable key stakeholders and the public to properly assess the budget proposals and make meaningful contributions to the consultation.

At the meeting of 26 November 2014, departmental officials provided an overview of the 2015-16 draft Justice budget for resource and capital funding, outlined the Minister’s high-level priorities and provided an initial assessment in very broad terms of the likely implications of the budget reductions for the main spending areas.

The Committee was broadly content with the Minister’s stated priority areas, which include front-line policing, ensuring that the PSNI has adequate additional security funding and protecting other front-line areas across the Department, as far as possible, with the aim of protecting outcomes for the public. It agrees that funding should be targeted towards these priorities. The Committee also welcomes the assurance that it received from the Department that the budget allocations will support the Programme for Government commitments that fall to it to deliver.

However, as I have already indicated, the detailed information on the proposed allocations for each spending area and the proposed savings plans has not been provided. Therefore, it has been impossible for the Committee to undertake a proper assessment of whether the funding is actually being targeted at the priorities. Whilst officials have advised that reductions in staff numbers will be necessary, the Department has not yet provided the Committee with any information on the likely level of reduction in posts required or how many staff could leave as part of the voluntary redundancy scheme. It has, however, indicated that the majority of the Department’s budget goes to arm's-length bodies and is, therefore, staff-related. It is therefore clear that significant restructuring across the Department and related organisations is likely to be necessary. The Committee has urged the Department to clarify the position as soon as possible.

Given the scale of the emerging pressures facing the Department, in-year and for 2015-16, the Committee is very concerned that front-line services may not be protected. Back in June, the previous Chair highlighted the major budget and resilience challenges that the PSNI is facing, particularly in relation to sustaining the number of warranted officers that it believes is necessary. Having discussed the budget pressures with the Chief Constable of the PSNI in October, the Committee is well aware of the potential impact that further reductions in the PSNI budget will have on the delivery of front-line policing, including community policing. Protecting and prioritising funding for policing to any degree does, however, have a substantial impact on the rest of the Department and NDPBs, given that policing accounts for two thirds of the overall justice budget. It is therefore imperative that detailed and accurate information on the proposed budget is available to ensure that the best decisions are made regarding the allocation of scarce resources.

In addition, the Committee has expressed some concerns about other areas of the DOJ budget. The Committee has indicated that it finds it difficult to see how the Northern Ireland Prison Service budget can be protected given the budget pressures. The 20% reduction in DOJ core directorates will clearly have an impact on organisations such as NIACRO, and we have heard more recently in the media about the drugs rehabilitation facility at Railway Street in Ballymena. The Committee has expressed some concerns that the loss of such facilities will ultimately result in more pressure being placed on other areas of the DOJ budget, putting more pressure on the police, the courts and the Prison Service.

The Probation Board is also facing a significant reduction in its budget and is very concerned about the likely implication on its ability to undertake the appropriate level of monitoring and management of some of the most serious offenders, such as sex offenders and violent offenders, who live in the local community. There are also, of course, the ongoing issues with legal aid costs. That has been highlighted for a number of years now and will be a continued pressure as we move forward. It is an issue that the Committee is keen to address. There is also a 24% reduction in the capital baseline for next year, and so it is clear that prioritisation of capital projects will be essential moving forward.

In conclusion, it is clear that the Department of Justice faces a difficult budgetary climate in 2015-16 and that funding will have to be carefully managed to ensure that key priorities and targets continue to be delivered to the required standard. We require detailed information on the proposed allocations and the likely implications and impacts as a matter of urgency to enable the Committee to properly scrutinise and assess the budget proposals. The Committee has requested the attendance of the Minister of Justice to discuss the budget further and, in particular, will want to be assured that budget reductions in one area will not be a false economy and have a detrimental impact on and add additional cost to other areas of the criminal justice system. The Committee also expects the Department to be innovative and collaborative in its approach to the delivery of services and to explore all funding opportunities for front-line services, including European funding streams, assets-recovery funding and the change fund set up by the Executive.

Mrs Cochrane: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate today as a member of the Finance and Personnel Committee and to highlight some key points on behalf of the Alliance Party.

In the absence of a formal Programme for Government to cover the 2015-16 financial year, the draft Budget was predicated on a carry-forward of the five key Programme for Government priorities. That would not seem such a bad approach if the previous allocations had proved to be a perfect fit. Alliance believes, however, that continuing to allocate funding as per 2011 is not the most sustainable or reasonable approach and that instead there should be a fundamental reassessment of the need for each service, with money allocated to the Departments on that basis. There should also be an assessment of the relative importance of what have been termed inescapable pressures versus the impact of the cuts elsewhere to meet them.

The Committee's report underlines the importance of allocations based on need by recommending that DFP gives more consideration to setting out the wider economic impact of the specific departmental reductions, and that is particularly relevant to the proposed cuts to the Department for Employment and Learning's budget. In the Programme for Government, we have a priority to grow a sustainable economy and invest in the future and we know the importance of the availability of third-level talent for attracting FDI and building our economy, yet the draft Budget puts at risk the provision of some local university and further and higher education and training places.

Other decisions that need to be questioned are, for example, DARD's proposed departmental move to Ballykelly. At a time of limited public resources, the costs of that project should surely be redirected to front-line services. The Finance Committee's report also highlights the need for greater transparency so that the Assembly can determine whether a consistent approach is being taken across Departments in prioritising service delivery.

Although there has been no blanket protection for any Department, it has been recognised that the health service is facing significant pressures. However, we need to be careful that we do not simply continue to allocate resources to that sector without it properly pursuing its efficiency agenda, too.

There is little transparency of what is being protected and little scrutiny of what are deemed as inescapable pressures. We have all heard the A&E and waiting list stories, but money alone will not resolve those problems when there are underlying issues. For example, my daughter was on a waiting list to see a consultant paediatrician. I received an appointment letter to take her to a private clinic for a scan and to another private clinic to see a consultant. That was part of the measures that were being used to reduce waiting lists and, as a service user, it was welcomed. However, when we went to the review appointment last week, it turned out that the consultant paediatrician had no records of the scans or the previous appointment, and she spent the time negotiating a very slow computer system to try to make some sense of what she was meant to see my daughter about. The final outcome was a quick blood pressure check. In other words, valuable consultant time is being lost in an ineffective system. That is not the fault of the staff, but it is a classic example of where operational and technological improvements can and should be made.

We do not need to start from scratch, as much work has been done to highlight where there is significant scope for reform in the health sector, but we now need to drive those things forward. Reforms to the estate are also required, but there needs to be serious political commitment to that. We cannot expect managers in trusts to make savings and then respond with political outrage because we have not looked at the bigger picture. I asked OFMDFM whether it would consider reallocating the resources associated with the junior ministerial posts in that Department to posts in the Health Department to allow a much greater focus to be given to that important task, but the idea was rejected.

The challenge of reform is, of course, not limited to the Health Department, and it is very clear that the deteriorating resource DEL position will necessitate proactive measures across all Departments to find efficiencies. Figures over previous years have shown that the public-sector pay bill has continued to increase over and above inflation, despite the so-called pay freeze. Therefore, incremental rises for no extra work output are unfortunately no longer sustainable. All Departments need to be benchmarking and market testing, not to outsource services, but rather so that all services are examined to ensure that they are being delivered in the most cost-effective manner. If the current system can absorb £30 million of sick pay in one year without a noticeable reduction in output, efficiencies can clearly be made.

I am sure that nobody will be surprised if I raise the issues of the costs associated with providing public services within a divided society. While those savings may not be able to be realised within a very short one-year time frame, it is nevertheless important that efforts are made to quantify such distortions and plans to release such savings for reinvestment in improving public services are taken forward. There was a commitment in that regard in the T:BUC document, and the recent Stormont House Agreement reinforced that. Therefore, Alliance calls for that independent audit to be a formal Executive commitment in the 2015-16 Budget. As I said, we know that a one-year Budget will not allow all those problems to be solved, but the fiscal challenge that we face demonstrates the need to overhaul public services in Northern Ireland entirely. This Budget needs to lay the groundwork for doing so and ensure that our resources are not continually wasted on maintaining divisions.

Finally, one other area that the Committee report highlighted was that the pressure on public finances will increase in coming years and that fiscal contractions are often best addressed with a ratio of spending cuts and revenue raising. The Committee report recommends that the Executive should publish a consultation paper on the options across all Departments for raising additional revenue, which would set out all the benefits, risks and impacts on the economy, consumers and the most vulnerable. Only then can an informed debate take place and only then can we, as a devolved Administration, start to take some real responsibility for managing the budgetary challenges. Alliance is supportive of that approach; however, we are clear that we cannot ask people to contribute additional revenue to the Executive if it is being allocated to public services that are not operating efficiently, or if it is simply being used to sustain a divided society. Fair revenue-raising structures must go hand in hand with other reforms. It is a major challenge, but one that the people of Northern Ireland expect our Executive to deliver on.

Northern Ireland is not the only region that is being adversely affected, and the bottom line is that we need to up our game in agreeing a balanced Budget —

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

Mrs Cochrane: — that delivers the best we can for the people of Northern Ireland.


4.45 pm

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

I am particularly grateful to the Committee for Finance and Personnel for allowing me to debate the draft Budget today, because it is an opportunity that the Minister for Regional Development denied me and my colleagues on the Committee. Instead, he chose to inform the Committee of his sensationalist and draconian budget by email approaching 5.00 pm on the evening of 29 November, before skulking off to appear on the 6.00 pm news and wave his brand of mass hysteria.

Listening to the Minister on the news and having subsequently scrutinised the budget proposals set out by DRD, one image sticks in my mind. It is the image of a pensioner standing on a gnarled and frozen footpath by the side of a ravaged, potholed road that may never be repaired, waiting for a bus that may never arrive, and standing under a broken street light that may never be fixed. That is the reality that the Minister and his Department have presented — the reality that makes no attempt to protect our most vulnerable citizens and the reality that faces our most isolated.

Let us not beat about the bush. The Minister may have scurried off to complain on the news and to the press about his budget. However, it was a budget that he agreed should be punitive and a budget that he agreed against the allocation provided by the Executive. You can dress it up as much as you like by saying that he abstained from the Executive vote on the Budget, but the reality is that he did not vote against it. The reality is that he took his allocation, and the reality is that he sensationalised it through attacking the most vulnerable in our society.

If I may, I will touch on some specific elements contained in the Department's draft budget. The Committee is extremely troubled at the Department's proposals with regard to the reduction in the Northern Ireland Water allocation. Northern Ireland Water has changed significantly from the bumbling bureaucratic beast of the freeze/thaw period into an organisation that is significantly closer to closing the efficiency gap between it and its counterparts in England and Wales. It is already woefully underfunded and facing a historical and pre-devolution multibillion-pound deficit in respect of its capital investment. Its investment programme is independently established through the Utility Regulator, which has set a very challenging programme of efficiencies over the next control period that will bring it to 2021.

We question, therefore, the rationalisation of imposing further cuts on NI Water and the absence of strong contingency plans in relation to water quality in the coming years. The risk of infraction proceedings, particularly in relation to the ongoing pollution of Belfast lough, is already significant. Imposing a further reduction in the ability to invest will not convince the European Commission that we are serious about addressing the issue but will, rather, almost inevitably lead to the certainty of infraction proceedings.

I turn my attention to the provision of public transport. I will immediately state that the Committee continues to support the Executive on their decision to fund the concessionary fares scheme. The Committee is also pleased that the Department is finally sitting up and taking notice of the substantial Translink reserves. We fully endorse the continuing funding of reductions in Translink through those reserves and its other commercial activities and assets. However, once again, we are critical of the scaremongering undertaken by Minister Kennedy and his Department in stating that the proposed reductions would:

"inevitably lead to a combination of increased fares and reductions in, and the cessation of, some bus services."

The Department has accused the Committee of being disingenuous in suggesting that the permanent secretary, at a briefing on 29 November, had not asked for the list of towns threatened with total discontinuation of bus services to be kept confidential. First, I believe that it is wrong for the Department to have allowed every single town and village in Northern Ireland to wonder whether they were on the Minister's hit list. We should have been informed, and the public should have been informed, and there should have been an informed debate on those particular issues; something that the Minister and his officials seem to shy away from.

Secondly, I find it rich that the Department accused the Committee of being disingenuous, particularly when the Hansard report of the Committee meeting shows that the permanent secretary and his officials were less than forthcoming about the fact that the list even existed. The Hansard report shows that the permanent secretary stated that he did not have a list, that there was a process, that Translink had a list, that he did not have the list with him to give to the Committee and that there was an indicative list. When pushed to release it to the Committee, they suggested that it be exempted under freedom of information, and that those who were being so severely impacted on should be denied the opportunity to voice their opinions. If anyone is disingenuous in the whole charade of the budget, it is Minister Kennedy and his Department. The routes identified for cessation or a reduction in services will negatively impact on the most vulnerable and those living in our rural areas. How can the Minister for Regional Development convince our citizens that he and his Department are committed to Programme for Government (PFG) targets for rural poverty and social inclusion?

In evidence sessions for the Committee's inquiry into comprehensive public transport delivery structures, officials reluctantly agreed that the current legislation allows Translink to cherry-pick its routes. It would appear that this reluctance has been abandoned by the Department, which is essentially saying, "Translink, go ahead. Get rid of the most unprofitable routes, even though they may be the most essential. Cherry-pick your routes. Save yourselves money and build up your hard-hit reserves. Let the old, the isolated and the most vulnerable worry about these routes".

Just to rub salt into the wounds, during the very delicate process of trying to agree a draft Budget, not only is Translink allowed to show once again its lack of regard for the general public by announcing a 5% increase in fares, but it goes ahead with this decision without consulting the Committee, stakeholders or, most importantly, passengers. This further strengthens the Committee's desire for Translink to become an increasingly self-funding entity. It strengthens the Committee's view that the current structures are ineffective and that the Department and Translink are in cahoots with each other.

The pain does not end there. The Committee has asked the Department how Translink intends to reverse its loss-making trend and has been told that Translink plans to recover its losses —

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

Mr Clarke: — through a combination of income-generating and cost-reduction measures, including reductions in non-front-line staff and internal organisational changes, fare increases and service changes, which will involve looking at reducing the services that make the greatest losses.

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

Mr Clarke: I commend the motion.

Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leat as an deis labhairt anseo. Thank you for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I will speak initially as Chair of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

In DETI's assessment of the draft Budget proposals, its baseline position consists of an overall 15·1% reduction distributed pro rata across the Department and its arm's-length bodies. This assessment provides little indication of any prioritisation of expenditure in the Department. The Committee wants to see further analysis to ensure that the impact of reductions is lessened on areas of strategic priority for the Executive.

More than 90% of Invest NI's budget for the coming year is already committed. DETI officials informed the Committee that current proposals would mean that Invest NI will be unable to support its current level of activity, presumably resulting in fewer jobs being promoted and consequently leading to fewer jobs being created. This is at a time when the economy and the local business environment look to us to prepare for the devolution of corporation tax powers to the local Assembly. Officials stated that Invest NI would have to scale back its targets for any future Programme for Government and economic strategy, which is a concern for DETI and Invest NI. DETI's understanding is that the assurance provided that no worthwhile inward investment for job creation would be rejected due to budgetary constraints remains in place. It would be helpful to receive an assurance from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that this is an accurate assessment. However, reduced activity by Invest NI will undoubtedly result in fewer opportunities being identified, leading to fewer worthwhile proposals for inward investment and, therefore, fewer jobs created.

The Committee is very concerned, as is the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, that the Health and Safety Executive has had to target programme expenditure disproportionately, as a large proportion of its budget is for administration. The Committee is concerned that, under the budget proposals, all farm safety campaign activity will be suspended. The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development believe that, given recent high-profile tragedies, this programme should not be suspended.

Before considering reductions in InterTradeIreland and Tourism Ireland, there should be further assessment of the impact of austerity measures in the South on the budgets of these two organisations. The Committee has asked that the Department give us a detailed breakdown of actual out-turn of expenditure for the two North/South bodies compared with the Department as a whole and Invest NI. That is particularly relevant at a time when we are promoting research, innovation and development. InterTradeIreland has a key role in both parts of the island in helping to draw down funds, especially from Horizon 2020, for some of our more innovative companies and to support further innovation. Those two bodies have a very relevant role to play, but especially InterTradeIreland. That should provide appropriate evidence for the Executive to consider the budgets of the two organisations in more detail.

I will now speak in an individual capacity. In light of the revised financial priorities and commitments negotiated through the Stormont House Agreement, a cross-departmental task force, incorporating the Strategic Investment Board, should be set up to work on two interlinking and key areas. One is to prepare capital projects to avail themselves without delay of any new or reallocated funds. We have heard so much about that in recent times. That should become a priority. It is of major significance to the construction industry and the supply sector at a time when both could do with more than a little support from the public sector, especially from the reallocation of funding and the capacity to do so.

The second is to strategically prepare for the consequences of the devolution of corporation tax-varying powers. Amongst the issues for assessment is this: aside from upping general public sector performance and dealing with overseas investors, there are issues around skills and infrastructure, including water, roads, electricity, communications, broadband, mobile phone capacity and office accommodation capacity, especially for the areas that have been neglected and discriminated against in the past, such as rural areas west of the Bann.

I say with some assuredness that, tomorrow, the Enterprise Committee will discuss an inquiry into the implications of corporation tax and how we should prepare and upskill ourselves. It will be an inquiry that considers what the requirements are and takes evidence from key stakeholders in the area. I am sure that the Committee will agree to engage in that inquiry and support Departments in doing the work that is so necessary to help to attract trade and industry at times when we will see very substantial and significant cuts in the public sector, which will have major consequences for the posts that are declared vacant. Also, due to the lack of disposable income, the cuts will have further implications, especially for the retail sector.

A LeasCheann Comhairle, as, unfortunately, you still are, although I have no doubt that you could have complied with a much more elevated office — you are a good friend and a highly skilled politician — I will conclude on that point. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Nesbitt (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): As Chair of the Committee, I welcome the opportunity to participate. I thank the Committee for Finance and Personnel for bringing the matter to the House. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister received an oral briefing from officials on the Department's expenditure proposals for 2015-16 at a meeting on 26 November 2014. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but I put on record the Committee's appreciation for the frank briefing that officials provided and the detailed discussion that followed. The Committee also received responses from a number of the OFMDFM sponsor bodies when we requested information on their priorities and detail of any engagement that they had had with the Department on the Budget, which helped to inform our consideration of the issues.

The draft Budget proposes an allocation of £65·4 million of resource departmental expenditure limit for OFMDFM. On the face of it, that represents only a 0·6% reduction from its 2014-15 baseline, which, of course, is much less than that proposed for some of the other Departments. However, the Committee heard that that includes sums of £5 million for the historical institutional abuse inquiry and £3 million for victims and survivors that were not included in the 2014-15 baseline and which were normally allocated in-year, so, in effect, there is an additional £8·4million, or 12·8%, reduction in non-ring-fenced resource departmental expenditure limit.


5.00 pm

The officials also pointed out that savings have been made in each of the last three years and that a further £10·3 million should be achieved in the current financial year. Furthermore, continued reductions to the baseline of the current CSR period amount to approximately 9%. In view of those factors, officials advised that the ability to protect front-line services and staff from the impact of further reductions cannot now be guaranteed.

I believe that all on our Committee welcome the protection given to the historical institutional abuse inquiry through the decision to ring-fence £5 million for it, not least given the unnecessary trauma felt by victims and survivors when they heard the suggestion that June monitoring might not be able to fulfil the commitment to allow it to continue.

Officials confirmed that reductions expected from its sponsored bodies are likely to fall at between 10% and 15%. That will include the 4·4% reduction already made during the current financial year, although the size of an arm's-length body may affect its capacity to absorb any further cuts. A number of ALBs raised concerns to the Committee and the Department about their ability to continue to discharge their statutory functions. The Committee is determined to monitor that as we go forward.

The Committee also welcomes the additional £3 million allocated to victims but notes that the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS) will, like the other sponsored bodies, still be required to deliver savings. It is unclear at this time what the VSS baseline will be for 2015-16, although officials confirmed that it will exceed its 2014-15 baseline. Savings with the Department include discretionary spend, such as on research, and there will be a reduction of approximately 35 posts through suppression, redeployment or redundancy. Programmes delivered by the Department relate to equality and good relations, so any reduction to programme spend is likely to be in those areas.

Officials advised that reductions across most Departments means that there is likely to be less money available in monitoring rounds to deal with pressures. That may make it difficult for all Departments, including OFMDFM, to deliver on Together: Building a United Community, which is predicated on those in-year bids. In addition, while Delivering Social Change has a baseline, it previously also received funding in year and, therefore, could also be impacted should pressures arise. It will be important that the Committee receives timely information for future monitoring rounds, given the financial pressures being faced by the Department. On capital funding, officials confirmed that they expect that the allocation of £4·2 million will be sufficient for the further regeneration of Ebrington Barracks and Crumlin Road and the maintenance of the Maze/Long Kesh site.

I will now make some remarks in a personal capacity. I will pick up on some of the allocations for sites, beginning with Ballykelly. As the Finance Minister has told us repeatedly, we have to cut our cloth. While we continue to support the relocation of the headquarters of the Forest Service to Enniskillen, fisheries division to Downpatrick and the Rivers Agency to Cookstown, we are now withdrawing our support for the proposed relocation of DARD headquarters to Ballykelly at this time. The reason is that value for money has never been demonstrated, and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has ignored the repeated concerns of officials across many Departments, including DARD. Given the significant yet conservative costs of £40 million associated with the move and not least that the Minister's hopes to save £26 million by using existing buildings at Ballykelly have been dismissed as fanciful, we believe that the project should now be postponed and no further money spent until an independent investigation into the decision and its feasibility have been conducted. In the absence of demonstrating value for money, we cannot but believe that the move at present is being advanced exclusively for party political advantage.

Secondly, it is time to end the uncertainty about the size, scale and scope of the proposals for the community safety college at Desertcreat, not least in the context of current demand for those services, locally, nationally and internationally.

Despite the social investment fund having a budget of £80 million to be spent over four years, currently only £37·2 million, or 46·5%, of the spend has been allocated. That was for the pressing issues of tackling dereliction and deprivation. It is time to cut our losses and reallocate the remaining budget under the social investment fund.

In my remaining 20 seconds I want to express concern about servicing debt. Currently, £63·4 million is set aside in the Budget. If we go ahead with the Stormont House Agreement we could borrow over £1 billion. We could soon be paying more than £100 million a year just servicing debt interest — more than the budget of most Executive Departments. That is a clear and present danger that I hope the Minister will address later in the debate.

Mr I McCrea: I will touch on something that the Member who previously spoke mentioned — the Desertcreat training college. It is important that, as things have progressed in respect of that, it has not been the easiest of journeys for anyone who has been involved in that process, certainly as a constituency matter, never mind for those who sit on the respective Committees that have to deal with that. The Minister will know that I have pressed the issue time and time again, not only with him but with the Justice Minister, as have other colleagues in the constituency.

The Member who previously spoke made an important point: the time has come. We are going to get something, whether that is on a smaller scale than what was initially programmed or is the same, which I doubt. The time has probably well and truly passed in respect of Desertcreat. Whilst the Justice Minister has commenced a process, he should come to the House as soon as possible to advise exactly what is proposed there, what services will be delivered there, who will use it and whether there is a national or international dimension to it.

Mr McGlone: Thank you for giving way, Mr McCrea. Could we also establish, either through the Department or through the Minister, what assurances or securities have been sought or given from Westminster that the moneys that were available for the project through Westminster will still be there?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member has an additional minute.

Mr I McCrea: Thank you. That is also a very important point. No doubt the Minister will have heard and will hopefully be able to answer that, because an important part of what happens for the future of Desertcreat is that that money is in place. We have been told in the past that it is ring-fenced. The Justice Minister was given money in the draft Budget. There are as many questions as answers in respect of it, but the time needs to come very quickly in respect of exactly what is going to happen there. I know from the communication that I get from the local community, and, indeed, the local council, that there is a big concern that it is going to fall flat. Let us hope that those who make the decisions make the right ones in a positive way for Desertcreat.

I must put on record — I can now see them as I stand — that I could see someone's tablet as I was sitting in the Officials' Box. It is important to put on record the —

Mr I McCrea: Unfortunately not. It is important to put on record my thanks to the Committee officials, because they had to go through a lot of evidence sessions, listening to the members and other things that were going on, and deal with other Committees. They had an important job to do to try to bring it all together, so I thank them for that.

In respect of the education budget, it is important that the Minister look at his priorities.

He sent a communication from the Department to boards of governors and principals on the draft Budget and the aggregated schools budget planning figure for 2015-16. In any meetings that I have had over the past number of weeks with principals and members of boards of governors, there is deep concern, to say the least, about the ability of principals to run their schools properly if the Minister does not reprioritise his budget.

I appreciate that the draft Budget is just that. At the talks process for the Stormont House Agreement, which Mr Nesbitt and others referred to, a five-party financial package was agreed with the Prime Minister. Therefore, things will no doubt progress, but it is important that the Education Minister look again at the issue of the aggregated schools budget, because, as principals have said — it is not scaremongering — it is the case that schools will have to look again at whether they can afford to employ, and keep in employment, classroom assistants. I do not know what that will mean, under health and safety, for children's lunch breaks and breaks in the school yard, but it is certainly going to mean that there will be fewer teachers. With that comes larger class numbers. Therefore, there are a number of issues that need to be resolved in the wider education package.

My colleague the Chair of the Regional Development Committee mentioned street lighting. It is an issue that each and every one of us has had expressed to us. It is unfortunate that the Regional Development Minister picked a very emotive issue in street lighting. He has to provide more clarity on why he chose street lighting as the financial saviour, as it were, to try to balance his books. It has not gone down well in the community, and I feel that the matter needs to be addressed. Again, it is about the reprioritisation of budgets.

There are always plenty of constituency issues to raise. The events fund is something that cropped up time and time again. It is important that we look at that as well.

A number of Members have referred to corporation tax. The Minister has said that it is important that we have the skills in place. The Minister's words are "tax" and "talent". It is important that DEL ensure that the talent remains in place for when the tax rate is reduced. There are other things that —

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

Mr I McCrea: — I can say, but I see that my time is about to come to an end.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and thank the Finance Committee for bringing it forward. Although it is essential that we agree a Budget, we cannot ignore the devastating impact that Westminster-driven austerity has had on our local budgets, our public services and, indeed, our people. By removing more than £1 billion from the local Budget, Westminster's relentless attack on the block grant has ensured that collectively, as an Executive and an Assembly, we are unable to deliver the required level of public services that we desire.

Westminster promises nothing only more austerity. Our Budget has been stripped relentlessly, with no consideration given to our unique local challenges that are a direct result of our emerging from conflict. We have some of the highest levels of child poverty in the Western World. We have working families who are reliant on food banks, and, relative to earnings, our state pension is among the lowest in Europe.

Collectively, we must stand united to demand that we receive the necessary resources from the Westminster Government to ensure that we can meet and address the challenges facing our communities and our people. There is no greater risk to our local Budget than the continual cuts imposed on public spending by the Tory and Liberal coalition in London. For every £100 million that is cut by Westminster from spending on health and public services in Britain, £3·4 million is lost to our Budget for public spending on essential services in the North, including health and education.


5.15 pm

Our budgets, economy, welfare and public pensions are all controlled by an austerity-driven Administration in Westminster. There is a better, fairer way. If we are to build a stable and peaceful society, we must maintain public services, particularly the core services of health, education and welfare; address the needs and pressures of a society emerging from conflict; deal with the realities of higher levels of deprivation and higher costs; overcome division and duplication, and build an equitable and sustainable economy. There is an alternative to Westminster-driven austerity and we must find it. The Westminster Government must end their policy of raiding the block grant for 2014-15. We also have a responsibility locally to balance our books and, to achieve this, we must be proactive, creative and responsible.

Today, we have heard, for example, how we need to stop using monitoring rounds to fund necessary and vital services, such as is the case in health. For the record, Sinn Féin believes that all citizens are entitled to public services and employment. We believe, North and South, that growing the economy requires political power and progressive policies and investment. Sinn Féin wants to balance the books in the North and across the island through economic growth and employment, not by cutting services and taking money from the poor.

If we are to realise the economic potential, safeguard public services and create growth in jobs, we also need the power to do so. We must collectively place the economic needs of people front and centre. If left to those in London, economic growth will always be peripheral, ad hoc and inequitable. We must demand the maximum powers from Westminster to grow the economy ourselves. This is Sinn Féin's vision for a stronger, more equal economy in the North and indeed across the island.

I just want to finish by talking briefly about education. I know that it has been covered, perhaps at length, today by various speakers. Indeed, many have concentrated on the need to protect front-line educational services in the classroom, at the coalface in schools. I want to talk a little bit about how important the broader context of education is when we look at the draft Budget, especially the role of the community.

When we consider that only 9% of a child's educational life is spent in the classroom, we often get hoodwinked into thinking that the classroom is the be all and end all that will determine the outcome of a child's education. That simply is not the case. We need to ensure that there is proper investment in youth services and things like Sure Start and to tackle the wider societal effects of poverty. If opportunities do exist pursuant to the £30 million change fund and indeed the Barnett consequentials, we need to work together towards protecting education. I agree with Paul Girvan from the DUP, who said earlier that we need to ring-fence the education and health spend. I think that he is 100% right. I hope that we will work together in doing this going forward. In light of this, I am content that the draft education budget ring-fences £10 million for targeting social deprivation and further extends the free school meal entitlement by 12,000 pupils — that is an additional 12,000 pupils who will receive free school meals and uniform grants — and will inject an additional £10 million for special educational needs. I think these are all very important and valuable. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr McCausland (The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure): I rise today as the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure to speak on the motion. I welcome the opportunity to do so.

I have to say at the start that the Committee has not really had the opportunity to discuss the draft budget for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for 2015-16 in any great depth as members have, as yet, received very little detail. The information provided is very high level — I emphasise the word "very" in that sentence: it is extremely high level — and therefore the Committee has not been in a position to undertake its usual detailed scrutiny.

Under the proposal, DCAL's budget sees a baseline current expenditure cut of 10% overall. For a Department with such a small budget to begin with, this is a very significant cut and its impact will be felt across all DCAL’s divisions and arm's-length bodies.

A key DCAL responsibility is the redevelopment of the stadia at Ravenhill Kingspan, Windsor Park and Casement Park. Issues, which we are all very much aware of, around this programme and the difficulties that there have been with regard to Casement Park have meant that the Department has often found itself in the position of surrendering this budget as it is specifically allocated. The Committee is concerned that the current CSR period will end before the money allocated for the stadia can be spent and that it will have to be returned to the Treasury.

Members also have concerns that non-completion of the agreed stadia redevelopment will have an impact on the subregional football stadium redevelopment plan scheduled for the next CSR, which was, however, linked to the redevelopment of the three main stadia as part of one complete package.

The DCAL draft budget highlights the fact that vacancies will remain unfilled, recruitment and pay will more than likely be frozen and the Department will make use of a voluntary exit scheme administered and funded at the centre. DCAL acknowledges that there will inevitably be an impact on front-line services as a result. The Committee appeals to the Finance Minister to ensure that the voluntary exit scheme is brought forward in a timely fashion and designed in such a way as to allow the protection of posts in front-line services. The Department has indicated that it will seek to realise savings through the reconfiguration of back-room services. Committee members suggest that that is undertaken in full cooperation with the arm's-length bodies and other Departments. At the Committee's urging, DCAL officials undertook to examine options around utilising the change fund and financial transactions capital. However, the Committee again urges the Finance Minister to apply pressure to Departments to ensure that opportunities are identified and acted upon quickly.

The Committee is very supportive of DCAL's proposal that the reduction in Libraries NI's budget be limited to 7·5%. That should mean that no libraries will close, and the Committee welcomes this. There is, however, a downside to that level of protection for the Libraries NI budget, as it means that budget reduction across the rest of the DCAL family rises to 11·2%. The impact of cuts this size will be considerable and, in some areas, potentially irreversible.

As part of its draft Budget consultation, DCAL has proposed an arts and culture strategy. The Committee believes that that represents the best way forward to secure the long-term future of the arts and culture sectors. It should provide an opportunity to take a clearer cross-departmental approach to the arts and culture, including for funding.

It is proposed that the Arts Council's budget will fall from £12·3 million to £10·9 million. That cut of £1·4 million may seem small in relative terms. However, it could represent the end of a range of activities and organisations across the arts sector. Again, we need to think very carefully when assuming that cuts of relatively small amounts will not have disproportionate impacts and consequences.

The proposed reduction in National Museums NI's budget from £12·76 million to £11·33 million in 2015-16 will mean periodic closures across the museums estate and a reduction in events and special exhibitions. In many cases, National Museums Northern Ireland's activities have a cross-departmental emphasis, and therefore should be considered for co-funding with other Departments and included in the development of an arts and culture strategy.

Sport NI's budget is proposed to fall from £9·27 million to £8·23 million in 2015-16. Most savings will come from the grant programmes. However, it is likely that some of Sport NI's excellent work in the development of sporting bodies' governance and accountability structures will have to be curtailed. The Committee is concerned that the reduction of core funding provided by Sport NI to Disability Sport NI (DSNI), to £146,000 in 2015-16, jeopardises the "whole-of-Northern-Ireland" aspect of DSNI's work. The Committee believes that the work that DSNI undertakes epitomises the DCAL core objective of promoting equality and tackling poverty and social exclusion. We believe that its funding should be protected.

Without detailed savings delivery plans, it is very difficult for the Committee to make definitive comments. Nevertheless, the Committee is very supportive of maximising the drawdown of EU funding to supplement budgets. We believe that more could be done in that area. Cooperation with the new super-councils would allow economies of scale etc to be utilised. Savings through intra- and interdepartmental cooperation need to be examined. This is a Department with quite a range of arm's-length bodies.

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

Mr McCausland: DCAL's activities contribute significantly to our economy, health and well-being and they enrich us all.

Mr Weir: I rise at this late stage in the debate to draw out a couple of the themes that have emerged. As we look towards the draft Budget of 2015-16, there is no doubt that, in many ways, it is a very significant financial year in budgetary terms. It acts as a signpost to good and bad in the future.

There is no doubt that, as we progress, we are moving further into an age of austerity. As the Finance Minister and the Finance Committee have already indicated, had expenditure gone ahead at the levels operating in the last Parliament and continued on to this Parliament, we would probably be somewhere in the region of £1 billion better off. However, as we move ahead, despite the good work that was done on a cross-party basis at Stormont House prior to Christmas, where additional funding could be levered in, there is no doubt that the overall direction of travel in years to come is towards greater levels of austerity. That has been eased by what happened at Stormont House, but it has not been solved.

Faced with the challenge of austerity, we can take a number of actions or move forward on a number of routes. It is relatively easy and understandable that a wide range of interest groups will look at the Budget and simply say, "Give us more money" or "Restore such-and-such a budget". We have heard that from external organisations and also from representatives of a range of Departments across the Chamber. That is very understandable, but the idea of the Finance Minister simply signing additional cheques for worthy causes is not really something that is particularly doable.

The additional money that will potentially come from the Stormont House Agreement and the £70 million of extra revenue that will potentially flow towards the Executive as a result of Barnett consequentials from the December statement by the Chancellor, can be used to ease some of those pressures and burdens. However, it is not a solution simply to say that there can be a blank cheque.

Despite the good arguments that Northern Ireland is a special case — those were pushed very hard prior to Christmas — there is no situation in which any Government at Westminster are simply able to offer a blank cheque. So we have to deal with the austerity and the reality of the situation.

I believe that that offers at least two levels of challenge, a micro level and a macro level, for the Executive. As indicated, there is a major challenge to each of the Departments. We have heard that there is concern that, in some Departments, there is a tendency to salami-slice — to see what can simply be chipped off the edges — rather than look at a strategic way of moving forward. We have heard criticism in the Chamber of the way in which that has been done by a number of Departments. I suspect, for example, that my colleague the Chair of the Regional Development Committee may be off the Minister's Christmas card list, given some of his comments. That is illustrative of an approach that does not look, from a ministerial point of view, at a particularly strategic direction.

Similarly, there has been criticism of the education budget. That is something that we will come to in much more detail tomorrow. The idea of saying, "Give more money to education", rather than looking at how the Department prioritises its money, is a fundamental flaw in that. So there is a challenge to all Departments to think much more long term and strategically.

Similarly, there is a challenge to the Executive as a whole. It cannot simply be a question of seeing what little bits can change here and there to make things work.

That is why the positive in this draft Budget is its forward-looking nature. We have seen a number of items that the Finance Minister has put in place which build towards the future. For example, with financial transactions capital, money is set aside for the creation of an investment fund and that is a very positive way forward. Similarly, the £30 million set aside for the change fund is something that will be an incentive towards reform. However, the biggest single challenge is the voluntary exit package, which looks to rebalance our economy, on an entirely voluntary basis, to see where people can be released from the public sector.

That will have a major impact on our Budget, but, almost as importantly, it will lead to a degree of rethinking over the way that we deliver public services. It will also provide a major challenge to Departments not to simply tinker round the edges but to look much more fundamentally.


5.30 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

It is also the case that there is an emphasis on support for the private sector, as we seek to rebalance the economy, going alongside some of the agreements that were reached prior to Christmas. We have seen the initial steps with corporation tax, for example, but there is no point in taking those steps if we do not look also at the levels of support that are available to businesses. Efforts have been made to hold down manufacturing rates, for example, which, at present, equate to around £60 million within the Executive's Budget. The continuation in 2015-16 of a range of benefits to small businesses equates to somewhere in the region of around about £20 million. That level of support has to be consistent across the board. It also belies the argument that was used by some that we should simply try to dig our way out of this problem by higher and higher rates rises. It should be noted that, for every additional percentage that we put on the regional rate at domestic or non-domestic level, for example, the combined total would be in and around £7 million. So, if we were to try to start to close some of the gaps in the changes, the level of increase that would need to be created in the regional rate would be exorbitant on our local businesses and households. Therefore we have got to think, and I think the Minister is providing solutions that are joined up.

There is no doubt that there are difficult and austere days ahead, and there is no doubt that, when the Minister comes back with the final Budget, he will have taken into account those changing financial circumstances through the Chancellor's announcement, for example, and some of the agreements through Stormont House. However, despite the difficulties, I think we have a Budget that is looking to the future — a Budget that places reform and change at the heart of its agenda. As we progress in the next few years, that is what Northern Ireland needs.

Mr Kinahan: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and congratulations on your new role. I am here to speak on behalf of the Audit Committee. I want to set out our position on the provision in the draft Budget for the Northern Ireland Audit Office. I begin by reminding Members about the Audit Office's position. It is entirely independent of DFP, the Executive and their Ministers, and it serves the Assembly by providing us with an effective and truly independent audit assurance in relation to the use of public funds. In fact, last year alone, those Departments that followed its recommendations saved some £22 million.

Its independence means that it can ensure that the Executive and their Departments are held to account by the Assembly for their financial performance. Its independence means that it can, without fear or favour, examine the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which public funds have been used. Its independence also means that the Executive should neither control nor direct its access to resources.

The Committee, therefore, welcomes the recognition of its independence by the Finance Minister and the acknowledgement that it would be inappropriate for the Executive to seek to impose savings targets upon it. The Minister has pointed out, however, that many Departments, including his own, will have to make savings in the region of 11%. He has gone on to say that he would expect the Audit Office to seek out similar savings and efficiencies. That would mean the Audit Office saving up to £1·2 million in 2015-16.

Mr Speaker, the Audit Committee accepts that the Audit Office should continue, wherever possible, to build on the savings it has achieved over recent years, but, if we are going to be fair, we must acknowledge the extent of the savings that it has already achieved. Those savings are considerable, despite the fact that it has very little discretionary spend. In the last five years, the Audit Office has made efficiency savings of 14·5% in cash terms. That is almost 25% in real terms. We should not impose additional cuts on the Audit Office simply because it has been ahead of the game in making efficiencies.

Much more significant, however, would be the impact of further cuts. Given the statutory requirement for the office to carry out financial audit work, any such cuts would almost exclusively affect its value-for-money programme. A reduction of £1·2 million, as suggested by the Minister, would wipe out this work altogether. There is no conceivable reason for us to want to do this.

Let us just remind ourselves how important this work is and how much money is saved as a result of it. Let us recall the Audit Office's work on the management of substitute cover for teachers, which led to quantified financial savings of £10 million, or its work on the control of bovine TB, which led to quantified financial savings of £7 million. Then there is its work on the national fraud initiative. Since 2010, this initiative has identified outcomes of almost £30 million, £14·5 million of which relates to fraud and error in rates revenue, which, as the Minister knows, is currently our only revenue-raising power and which is vital for us to maximise.

Last year alone, Departments acting, as I said at the beginning of my speech, on Audit Office recommendations saved the public purse £22·1 million. That sum would pay for an additional 1,500 nurses or 1,000 teachers per annum. If we were to cut the Audit Office's funding, we would limit our ability to make savings right across the public sector. We cannot afford to do this. Now more than ever, we need the Audit Office’s expertise in identifying efficiencies.

There may be further savings achievable at the Audit Office, but, given the nature of its spend, these can only be achieved by a rationalisation of its management structures. This would require specific funding being made available as part of the wider public sector reform measures to be put in place. The Committee would, therefore, ask the Minister and his Department to work with the Audit Office on this issue.

The Audit Committee is committed to ensuring that the Audit Office has the resources it needs to support the Assembly in holding public bodies to account for their use of public money. This role is even more important in the current financial climate. The Audit Committee would not, therefore, agree to a reduction in the funding for the Audit Office, which would prevent it from carrying out this crucial role.

If I may, because I have a bit of time, I would like to touch on education. I know that we will have a debate tomorrow, but one of the major messages that we are getting on education from the schools themselves is that they will not be able to deliver the entitlement framework if the cuts go the way they are proposed and they will not be able to deliver the great education that we have at the moment. Many people have told me that it will do untold damage, not just to those who are at school at the moment, but to the whole of the next generation. The loss of teachers and others will mean that we could have a decade or two of damage to the skills that we start in our education system.

We, as a party, have called for a ring-fencing of the aggregate budgets to the schools themselves. I agree with the Chairperson of the Education Committee, who spoke earlier; we really do need to see all the information. We need total transparency and we need that detail so that we can look at the situation and come up with constructive suggestions as to how we do it.

When the Department came to the Committee, it became very clear that we are still planning on trying to do all the things that we are doing at the moment but with far less money. Such an approach seems to be completely daft. We need to look at what we do not need to do, what we can park and do later and what we can really work with. The absolute key to education is making sure that the schools can carry on educating to the best of their skills.

I also want to touch on the economy, very much in the same vein.

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

Mr Kinahan: We have got corporation tax, so we are told, but we need the skills, and those skills start at school.

Mr Allister: I suppose it should be no great surprise that a Budget cobbled together at the last minute is such a deficient offering. I note that PwC had comments to make about the fact that this is a Budget that, as currently constituted, probably does not balance. Of course, it made the same comment more recently about the overarching 2011-15 Budget, which, it said, did not really balance. So it seems that, even after those years, we are still back in the same territory. The matter is now compounded by the fact that this is a Budget that, I suspect, is now dated and has changed. We are told that, in consequence of the Stormont House Agreement, there is new money to be levered in. There are certainly opportunities, it seems, of new borrowings and new debts to be paid back. I suspect that this is a Budget that will be significantly, if not radically, altered by developments since it was published.

This would have been a far more fruitful and useful debate if the Minister, at the start of these proceedings, had taken a portion of his time to expound to the House the impact on the Budget of what has been agreed since the Budget itself was agreed in draft form. If that information had been laid before the House by the Minister at the start of the debate, this could have been a far more informed debate, because it is quite clear that there must and will be changes to it, but we deal with it as it is.

I will make some general observations. There seems to be a considerable disparity in the distribution of pain in this Budget. We have one of the most squandering Departments of all, that at the centre of government — OFMDFM — getting away very lightly indeed. We have bodies such as the SEUPB asked, it seems, for only a 4% efficiency cut. However, when we come to education, which is vital and a resource for the future, the cuts have all the appearance of being quite savage, and quite savage in a context of really failing to grasp a nettle in regard to the future.

This is an Executive —

Mr McElduff: Will the Member give way?

Mr McElduff: I welcome what the Member said about the education budget. I ask Mr Allister whether he would continue to approach positively the issue of more money for education, basically because of what we are hearing in our communities from principals, governors, classroom assistants, teachers and parents. I welcome the tone of Mr Allister's remarks in this matter.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Allister: I am quite clear, because the Department of Education sets out its aspirations in paragraph 5.15 of the draft Budget. When you measure those aspirations against how they will be impacted by the Minister's proposals, you discover just how aspirational they will be. It talks about "raising standards for all", but one of the consequences of the attack on the front-line delivery of education is fewer teachers. We will have a higher pupil:teacher ratio in our schools, so how are we going to raise standards for all in that context?

I do not think that this is schools crying wolf. Like other Members, I attended a briefing with between 40 and 50 principals from County Antrim last Thursday. The stories they were telling and the prospect they were painting were quite frightening. Far from this aspiration of raising standards, I think that we will see a diminution in standards.

We then have a promise and aspiration in the Budget about "closing the performance gap". I think that this Budget will widen the performance gap, which is already skewed by the fact that there is not a fair distribution of funding across the education sector because of the overgenerous provision made if you have enough free schools meals in your school and the deficit to those schools that do not.

The draft Budget talks about "developing the education workforce". That has to be laughable, because the import of these cuts will be a reduction in the number of teachers in our schools.


5.45 pm

"Improving the learning environment" is one of the aspirations. This Budget will impoverish the learning environment for generations to come. Then, it talks about "transforming the governance". I wonder how many governors, who come with a civic responsibility, will, when faced with impossible cuts, simply say, "School governor board membership is not for me", and walk away from the contribution that they make in education because of the impossible demands. Yet, all the time, they look around and see the squander of this Executive on so many issues.

I said that the draft Budget is an attack on skills and the future. I was about to make the point that the Executive are besotted, to the point of being blinded, with the single goal of getting corporation tax transferred. They have lost the run of themselves so much that, at the weekend, t