Official Report: Monday 15 June 2015


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

Assembly Business

Mr Hussey: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise to you and your Deputy Speakers for my unavoidable absence at Question Time last Tuesday. I apologise for my absence.

Mr Speaker: Thank you for apologising in advance of today's Question Time. However, I want to address the issue of a point of order: it is not actually a point of order. Nevertheless, thank you very much for the apology; it is on the record.

Before we proceed with today's business, I remind Members that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the Minister for Regional Development will be unable to attend Question Time this afternoon. The Minister for Social Development, who was originally listed to answer questions tomorrow, has agreed to take his place. So, questions to the Minister for Social Development on his portfolio will commence at 2.45 pm after questions to the Minister of Justice. All Members were notified of that change last Friday afternoon.

Executive Committee Business

That the draft Marine Conservation (Fixed Monetary Penalties) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

A Cheann Comhairle, this statutory rule is being made under powers in the Marine Act (Northern Ireland) 2013, which prescribes that this order must be laid in draft form for approval by affirmative resolution of the Assembly.

As it stands, my Department has two options when there is a contravention of nature conservation by-laws: it can either take no enforcement action, or it can initiate criminal proceedings. There is nothing in between those two positions. This order would improve that situation by providing a more targeted and proportionate response. It would introduce a fixed monetary penalty that could be issued when a low-level offence was committed, but it would not warrant the full weight of the criminal law. That would provide for a more effective system of protection and management of Northern Ireland’s marine area.

In saying that, I want to make it clear that my Department would retain the right to initiate criminal proceedings where it considered that a more serious case of environmental damage had occurred. The order would not change that position in any way.

I will now deal with the details. The order would give my Department the power to issue individuals with a fixed monetary penalty of £100, or £200 in the case of commercial enterprises. In each case, a 50% discount for prompt payment of the penalty and a 50% surcharge for late payment have been included. Members will also wish to note that any moneys received would be paid into the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and that my Department would be able to recover any unpaid penalties as a civil debt.

Of course, where sanctions are involved, it is essential to include an appeals procedure, and this order would be no different in that respect. Anyone subject to a fixed monetary penalty would be entitled to make written representations to my Department, and, should it still decide to apply the penalty, an appeal could be made to the Water Appeals Commission, which is an independent body. The commission would then have the power to confirm, vary or quash the enforcement decision, in accordance with its existing procedures and without further referral to the Department. The provisions therefore provide for an independent, transparent and cost-effective appeals mechanism, which should provide members of the public with confidence that enforcement decisions relating to the fixed monetary penalties would be both balanced and robust.

Finally, I am grateful to the Environment Committee for its scrutiny of the draft Marine Conservation (Fixed Monetary Penalties) Order, and I ask the Assembly to approve it.

Ms Lo (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment): I thank the Minister for his explanation of the background to and the purpose of this affirmative statutory rule. The Committee first considered the SL1 proposal at its meeting on 19 March, which was followed by an oral briefing from officials on 23 April. The Committee was advised that the purpose of the legislation is to provide for the level of fixed monetary penalties to be applied to unregulated activities that contravene the provisions of a by-law made for the protection of a marine conservation zone (MCZ). The fixed monetary penalties are low-level fines intended to be used for minor instances of non-compliance with by-laws. The Committee discussed the need to provide information to educate the public in order to raise awareness of the by-laws and the need to work with councils. Officials advised the Committee that there will be consultation on the development of by-laws, which will encourage public buy-in. The Committee also discussed the challenges in enforcing the by-laws and spotting offences, and whether there would be any real impact as a result of applying penalties, particularly if they were considered lenient. Officials assured the Committee that fines would have an impact but that they would be used in conjunction with education and awareness-raising. Accordingly, the Environment Committee has agreed to recommend that the motion be affirmed by the Assembly.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. My intention is to speak briefly in favour of the motion. As has been outlined by the Minister and the Chair of our Statutory Committee, we are dealing with a provision for a level of fixed monetary penalties in minor cases of marine pollution. We are dealing with the less serious type of offence, and that is reflected in the low level of fines.

I will ask a couple of questions of the Minister, if he is in a position to take them. How might public awareness of the new by-laws be raised? Can we be certain that the fines will have an impact?

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank Ms Lo and Mr McElduff. I reiterate my thanks to the whole Environment Committee for its support of the regulations.

The questions posed by Mr McElduff are indeed pertinent. It is vitally important that we do what is necessary to increase public awareness of the existence of these fixed penalty notices. If any such regime is to be successful, people need to be made aware of it. That will very much be an issue for those managing the MCZs, and in cases where no management body exists, the Department will play an active role. I encourage the Member to do what he can to make people aware, and I look forward to reading his press release on the passage of today's regulations.

Sorry, I forget the second question.

Mr McElduff: How can you be sure the fines will have an impact?

Mr Durkan: Regrettably, we cannot be sure of anything; however, when we look at other jurisdictions where similar measures have been taken, we see that they have proven successful. Obviously, we will continue to monitor the situation and remedy it, if needs be.

This new enforcement tool would benefit the whole of Northern Ireland by helping to ensure that the conservation objectives of Northern Ireland's marine conservation zones and European marine sites are met. I reiterate my thanks to the Chair and other members of the Committee.

Mr Speaker: I am afraid that we do not have a quorum, so I am requesting that the Division Bells be rung to ask Members to attend.

Notice taken that 10 Members were not present.

House counted, and, there being fewer than 10 Members present, the Speaker ordered the Division Bells to be rung.

Upon 10 Members being present —

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the draft Marine Conservation (Fixed Monetary Penalties) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

That the draft Planning (Amount of Fixed Penalty) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am pleased to bring before the Assembly the draft Planning (Amount of Fixed Penalty) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015. These regulations will be made under sections 153(9), 154(9) and 247(1) of the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. Under section 247(3) of the 2011 Act, the regulations are required to be laid in draft and approved by resolution of the Assembly.

By way of background, the 2011 Act allows for the issuing of an enforcement notice or breach of condition notice by a council in its role as local planning authority responsible for enforcing against all breaches of planning control under the new two-tier planning system. If the offender fails to comply with such a notice, the further enforcement options open to a council would be to initiate court proceedings or to take direct action to remedy the breach of planning control.


12.15 pm

The system of fixed penalty notices introduced by the 2011 Act is an additional enforcement measure and an alternative, at the discretion of a council, to potentially lengthy and costly court proceedings. Where a council might decide to issue a fixed penalty notice, it would give the offender the opportunity to pay a penalty as an alternative to prosecution.

These regulations will assist councils and strengthen their planning enforcement function. The key purpose of the regulations is to set out the level of the relevant fixed penalty. They propose a penalty of £2,000 for failing to comply with an enforcement notice and £300 for failing to comply with a breach of condition notice. Sections 153 and 154 of the 2011 Act provide for a 25% reduction of the amount payable where a fixed penalty is paid within 14 days.

Members may recall that the proposed amounts were part of the phase 2 consultation on planning reform and transfer to local government proposals for subordinate legislation. Overall, there was general support for the introduction of the fixed penalty notices as a discretionary enforcement tool for councils and for the proposed regulations that set out the penalty levels.

I recognise that for more significant breaches of planning control councils may still decide that prosecution through the courts would remain a more appropriate course of action. That will be a matter for an individual council in assessing the nature and scale of a particular breach of planning control and selecting the appropriate enforcement measure available to it. As I have said, the use of fixed penalty notices is discretionary, and councils will therefore exercise judgement as to their use in any particular circumstances.

The levels of £2,000 and £300 mirror exactly the levels applied in relation to similar fixed penalty notices in the planning regime in Scotland. These levels are viewed as being more appropriate for the more minor breaches that might be used by councils in relation to fixed penalty notice powers.

The Environment Committee considered the SL1 for the draft Planning (Amount of Fixed Penalty) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 on 16 April this year and confirmed that it was content for the Department to make the statutory rule.

I believe that the legislation will strengthen councils' enforcement powers by providing an additional, discretionary power as part of their enforcement toolkit. I believe that the system of fixed penalties provides a flexible and cost-effective alternative to court action and will act as a further deterrent to those who might consider flouting our planning legislation. I therefore ask the Assembly to approve the draft regulations.

Ms Lo (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment): Again, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the affirmative statutory rule.

As the Minister said, the Committee first considered the SL1 proposal at its meeting on 19 March, which was followed by an oral briefing from departmental officials on 16 April. The Committee was advised that the rule sets the fixed monetary penalty for an enforcement notice or a breach of condition notice for breaches in planning control.

Members questioned officials about the rationale for the fixed monetary penalty and processes around the administration of enforcement. The Committee heard that the penalty is a mechanism for strengthening enforcement by offering an alternative to court proceedings for minor breaches and can act as a deterrent. The Committee sought clarification that, in circumstances where a notice is served but the breach is not fixed, local councils can take further action if deemed fit. The Committee also heard that bringing enforcement and building control together is a positive step and that councils will be able to adopt a more proactive approach to enforcement. The Committee also explored the rationale behind the provision of a 25% reduction for early payment, which is based on the Scottish model of enforcement to encourage early payment, and which will be kept under review by the Department.

Accordingly, the Committee for the Environment has agreed to recommend that the motion is affirmed by the Assembly.

Mr McElduff: Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire agus le cathaoirleach an Choiste Comhshaoil as an mhíniú. I thank the Minister and the Committee Chair, Anna Lo, for explaining the statutory rule once again and for reminding us that the Committee looked at this earlier in the spring. Most of the issues have been covered in the explanations, but I want to ask the Minister about the incentive for early payment. I think that the figure in the legislation is a 25% reduction. I wonder how that figure was arrived at and whether there is any information based on the Scottish experience of how many people tend to pay early in the process with that reduced figure.

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank Ms Lo and Mr McElduff again for their support and Mr McElduff for his questions. We did look at other jurisdictions, primarily and chiefly Scotland, when arriving at the amount for these fixed penalty notices and indeed for the discount that is available to those who pay early. The experience from Scotland is that this is working. Ideally, we want to be in a situation where people do not pay early or late and do not have to pay these at all because they do not breach planning conditions or enforcement notices. These are very much another tool in the planning enforcement toolkit that is aimed at reducing the number of breaches that we have. It will be primarily up to councils how and when they use them. They do have that discretion.

This is another step in the reform and transfer of planning to councils. Through having this new, wider range of enforcement measures available, including, now, fixed penalty notices, I believe that councils will be in a better position to respond appropriately and proportionally to a breach of planning control.

I thank the Chair and other members of the Committee for their support of this motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the draft Planning (Amount of Fixed Penalty) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

Mr Storey: I beg to move

That the Social Security (Members of the Reserve Forces) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

These regulations enable claimants of jobseeker's allowance (JSA) or income support (IS) or partners of a claimant in receipt of these benefits or employment and support allowance (ESA) who are new members of the Reserve forces to attend a maximum of 43 days' training in their first year of service without the need to end their entitlement to benefit.

Existing legislation that was implemented in July 2012 allows claimants and/or their partners who are in receipt of JSA or IS, or the partner of a claimant who is in receipt of ESA, to attend the mandatory 15-day annual training camp without losing entitlement. Income-based claimants also retain any passported benefits, such as housing benefit, during this training. They are treated as available for and actively seeking work, if appropriate, for the duration of this training, and their earnings are disregarded, leaving just 10p of benefit in payment. These changes removed the need for them to reclaim benefits after training has come to an end and to retain any passported benefits, such as housing benefit, during this training.

These amendments impact on claimants and/or their partners in receipt of JSA or IS and also ESA claimants' partners who are members of the Reserve forces. This will mean that they can attend a maximum of 43 days' training in future whilst in their first year of service without the need to terminate their claim to benefit. Once claimants and/or their partners have completed their first year of service, they will then be entitled to the annual continuous training concession of 15 days per calendar year to enable them to attend their mandatory annual training camp. By consolidating their first year's training into three or four blocks totalling up to 43 days, unemployed reservists can be trained more swiftly, thus helping to speed up and increase the number of trained reservists over the next few years.

Members of the lifeboat service, Fire and Rescue Service and others engaged in emergency duties for the benefit of others are also required to undertake training throughout the year. However, that usually takes place at evenings or weekends to fit around volunteers' work and other commitments, and, as a result, there is no adverse effect on their benefit claim.

I believe that it is unnecessarily cumbersome and time-consuming for claimants and my Department to terminate awards of benefit and then require new claims to be made when training has ended. These changes are entirely beneficial and will generate less disruption for reservists, who will no longer be required to end their benefit claim and then make a repeat claim when their training has ended.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Stewart Dickson, speaking, I understand, on behalf of the Committee.

Mr Dickson: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am speaking on behalf of the Committee in the absence of the Chair and Deputy Chair for unavoidable reasons.

The Committee for Social Development considered the Department's proposals to make these regulations at its meeting on 12 March 2015, and the resulting statutory rule at its meeting on 16 April 2015. The Committee was supportive of the regulations.

The Committee noted that the regulations will enable claimants of jobseeker's allowance or income support, or partners of a claimant in receipt of those benefits or employment and support allowance, who are new members of the reserve forces, to attend a maximum of 43 days' training in their first year of service without the need to end their entitlement to benefit.

The Committee notes that the rule will reduce the administrative burden and payment delays. Jobseeker's allowance claims will be kept open by treating claimants as available for, and actively seeking, employment for the duration of their training. The Committee notes that the change will move claimants closer towards sustainable employment by allowing them to attend reservist training and encouraging networking within reservist-friendly organisations.

The Committee for Social Development recommends that the statutory rule be approved by the Assembly.

Mr Storey: I thank the representative of the Committee for his comments.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Social Security (Members of the Reserve Forces) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

That the Jobseeker's Allowance (Extended Period of Sickness) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

These regulations amend the Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1996 to allow an extended period of sickness that will enable the claimant to voluntarily remain on jobseeker's allowance (JSA) when they have a short spell of sickness that is expected to last more than two weeks but fewer than 13 weeks or they have exhausted the number of occasions on which they may be treated as capable of work. Claimants will need to provide medical evidence to qualify for the new period of sickness.

This change presents an opportunity for a more proactive jobseeker's allowance regime in helping people to manage health conditions that affect their work capability, whilst allowing them the choice of remaining on JSA and staying in touch with the personalised support available from their adviser, keeping them engaged with the labour market. In practice, if a claimant provides evidence of sickness that is expected to last for more than two weeks, they will be directed to claim employment and support allowance (ESA). In addition, if a claimant has a third period of sickness, however short, during that 12-month period, their JSA award is terminated and they must claim ESA if they have no other source of income.

Being required to claim ESA for short periods can have a number of disadvantages. First, claimants on ESA before the medical assessment — work capability assessment — do not currently have any conditionality requirements and do not generally benefit from the support of advisers as they look for employment.

Secondly, being required to switch benefits for a short period is unnecessarily disruptive to the payment of benefits and can impact the payment of passported benefits, for example housing benefit.


12.30 pm

Under the proposed change, claimants with a temporary medical condition and appropriate medical evidence will have the option of voluntarily remaining on JSA for one period of sickness of up to 13 weeks. During this period, the claimant would not be required to take up paid work but would be treated as being capable of work and as meeting availability requirements, as per the existing JSA sickness provisions. Claimants who take up this opportunity can claim ESA at any point, should they wish.

The extended period of sickness will work as follows: it will be a continuous period for up to 13 weeks in a 12-month period and cannot be split into multiple periods; and claimants with a short spell of sickness of two weeks or less can still make use of the existing sickness provisions under regulation 55 of the JSA regulations. Therefore, it would be possible for a claimant to have two short periods of sickness and, separately, an extended period of sickness. Where a claimant starts on two weeks of sickness and that period extends beyond two weeks, they can transfer to the extended period of sickness. However, the initial two-week period will count towards the 13-week maximum.

For the purposes of applying the new sickness provisions to a claimant, the first 12 months in a job-seeking period will start from the first day on which the claimant is unable to work on account of the illness or disablement and, if the job-seeking period exceeds 12 months, in each successive 12-month period. That differs from the existing sickness provisions, in which the first 12 months in the job-seeking period start on the first day of the job-seeking period. It will also make it operationally more complex, but the change is being made to avoid, in most circumstances, a situation in which someone has a period of 13 weeks of sickness at the end of a 12-month period and another 13 weeks at the start of the next 12-month period.

Mr Dickson: I again reply on behalf of the Social Development Committee. The Committee for Social Development considered the Department’s proposal to make the regulations at its meeting on 26 February 2015 and the resulting statutory rule at its meeting on 12 March 2015. The Committee supported the regulations.

The Committee noted that the regulations will amend the Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1996 to allow an extended period of sickness that will enable claimants to remain on JSA when they have a short spell of sickness that is expected to last more than two weeks but fewer than 13 weeks, or they have exhausted the number of occasions on which they may be treated as being capable of work. The Committee further notes that claimants will need to provide medical evidence to qualify for the new period of sickness.

The Committee notes that the change would also have the effect of reducing the administrative burden that results from requiring claimants to switch to another benefit — JSA to ESA — for a short time. Importantly, it will also have the effect of keeping a claimant in touch with the labour market and treating them as still available for work. The Committee notes that advisers will take account of the easements on conditionality that will apply to the claimants during the extended period of sickness. In conclusion, the Committee for Social Development recommends that the statutory rule be approved by the Assembly.

Mr Storey: I thank Mr Dickson for his comments on behalf of the Committee. I also thank the Committee for the work that it has done on the two issues that I brought to the House today.

The change presents an opportunity for a more proactive JSA regime that will help people to manage health conditions that affect their work capability, whilst allowing them the choice of remaining on JSA and staying in touch with the personalised support available from their adviser to enable them to remain engaged with the labour market. It is a welcome change, and I thank the House for its support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Jobseeker's Allowance (Extended Period of Sickness) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 15 June 2015.

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 15 June 2015.

Mr Speaker: As there are Ayes from all sides of the House and no dissenting voices, I am satisfied that cross-community support has been demonstrated. The motion is agreed.

Mr Speaker: The next two motions relate to the Supply resolutions and, as usual, there will be a single debate on the motions. One amendment has been selected for debate regarding the Supply resolution Main Estimates 2015-16 and is published on the Marshalled List. I shall ask the Clerk to read the first motion, on the Supply resolution for the 2013-14 Excess Votes, and call on the Minister to move it. The debate on both motions and the amendment will then begin. When all who wish to speak have done so, or when the time limit is reached, I shall put the Question on the first motion.

The second motion, the Supply resolution for the Northern Ireland Main Estimates 2015-16, will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move it. I will then call Mr Allister to move his amendment. The Question will then be put on the amendment, followed by the Question on the second motion.

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

That this Assembly approves that resources, not exceeding £7,444,446.68 be authorised for use by the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, for the year ending 31 March 2014, as summarised for each Department in Part II of the 2013-14 Statement of Excesses that was laid before the Assembly on 8 June 2015.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £8,336,067,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 and that resources, not exceeding £9,004,299,000, be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 3(b) and 3(a) of table 1·3 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Estimates 2015-16 that was laid before the Assembly on 8 June 2015. — [Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:

In the second motion leave out all after "exceeding" and insert:

"£7,732,067,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 and that resources, not exceeding £8,400,299,000, be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 3(b) and 3(a) of table 1·3 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Estimates 2015-16 that was laid before the Assembly on 8 June 2015, subject to a proportionate reduction for each Department, with the exception of the Department of Health Social Services and Public Safety, and each other public body referred to in columns 3(b) and 3(a) of table 1·3 of the aforesaid Estimates, so as to reflect the £604,000,000 shortfall resulting from the failure to implement the Stormont House Agreement." — [Mr Allister.]

Mrs Foster: As just set out, the debate covers the Supply resolution and the Excess Votes in respect of the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The Supply resolution seeks the Assembly’s approval of the 2015-16 departmental spending plans and that of their associated public bodies, as set out in the Main Estimates. The 2015-16 Main Estimates and the 2013-14 Statement of Excesses were laid in the Assembly on Monday 8 June 2015.

The Supply resolution, therefore, relates to the supply of cash and resources for the remainder of the 2015-16 financial year, as set out in the Main Estimates. A Vote on Account was passed by the Assembly in February, which provided initial legislative cover to ensure the continuation of public services until the Main Estimates could be presented to the Assembly for approval. This resolution, and the Budget Bill that I will introduce tomorrow, now request the balance to complete the total 2015-16 cash and resource requirements for the Departments and other public bodies. This balance amounts to over £8·3 billion of cash and over £9 billion of resources. These requirements have their origins in the Executive’s 2015-16 Budget, which was approved by the Assembly earlier this year. It also reflects the demand-led annually managed expenditure (AME) required by our Departments to deliver public services and to pay benefits and pensions.

As Members will be aware, the context of the Budget Bill is far from business as usual. We find ourselves in the position where the Executive’s 2015-16 Budget was predicated on agreement to implement welfare reform and the Budget flexibilities secured as part of the Stormont House Agreement. The ongoing uncertainty around welfare reform and the wider Stormont House Agreement is clearly putting the Executive’s Budget in jeopardy. I must, therefore, stress that the Main Estimates and the associated Budget Bill are recommended to the Assembly on the assumption that welfare reform is agreed and that the Stormont House Agreement stands.

It is incumbent on all members of the Executive to ensure that we find a way forward on those difficult issues. On behalf of the Executive, and on the basis that welfare reform will be implemented, I request and recommend the levels of Supply set out in the motion under section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

As is the norm, accelerated passage is required for the legislation. Indeed, there is a provision for that specific instance in the Assembly's Standing Orders. Owing to the unusual circumstances surrounding this year's Budget (No. 2) Bill, the Committee for Finance and Personnel has not yet been able to grant accelerated passage. I will attend the Committee this Wednesday, 17 June, to seek agreement to accelerated passage, and I hope that the Committee will be in a position to agree the request immediately after that briefing. I will, of course, update the House on the position at Second Stage, which is scheduled for next week. For now, I stress to members of the Finance and Personnel Committee and, in particular, the Committee Chair the critical importance of granting accelerated passage. I hope that the Committee will approach the briefing on Wednesday with that in mind.

I am sure that Members are aware that today's debate is time-limited. I therefore encourage Members to use their limited time to focus on the issues specifically related to the 2015-16 Supply resolution before us. The public-expenditure context facing the Assembly is an extremely difficult one. In their 2015-16 Budget, the Executive had to impose real-terms resource reductions on most Departments. With financial pressures mounting across a range of public services, that has led to difficult decisions across the board. Ministers have had to take decisions about what services to deliver, what services to reduce and, indeed, what activities to cease altogether.

I knew about the financial challenges facing the Northern Ireland Departments when I recently took up this post, and I am fully aware that that does not make my job any easier. Clearly, I would much rather have presided over a Budget in which there were plenty of resources to go around and in which the Executive would have the luxury of deciding what new services to introduce rather than what services to cut. However, we are in an environment of increasingly scarce resources. I am afraid that the immediate public-expenditure outlook is not a positive one.

The latest Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) projections for the United Kingdom as a whole suggest that further resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) reductions are to come in the next few years. In fact, the latest projections suggest that the UK resource DEL will reduce by some 9% in cash terms between now and the 2018-19 financial year. That having been said, the outlook for capital DEL is much more positive, with a projected increase at a UK level of 20% in cash terms over the same period.

As Members will be aware, the Chancellor, George Osborne, has announced that he will present a new UK Budget to Parliament on 8 July. It will set out the immediate Budget changes to be implemented by David Cameron's new Government. We have already had some insight into the direction of travel for the new United Kingdom Government for budget controls in last week's announcement of Whitehall in-year baseline reductions for many Departments. The outworkings of that through the Barnett formula have already had a negative impact on the Northern Ireland block.

Regarding longer-term spending plans, I anticipate that the UK Government will publish their spending review in the autumn, setting out their Budget plans for the period beyond this financial year. Whilst the outcome is uncertain, I expect the general direction of travel to reflect the latest Office for Budget Responsibility projections that I have just outlined.

The budgetary context that we find ourselves in means that we must take difficult decisions, minimise waste, promote the efficient delivery of public services and seek to protect front-line services. The spending priorities agreed by the Executive in the 2015-16 Budget will allow us to do just that. In that context, we cannot delay a decision on implementing welfare reform. The Executive and the Assembly must now move forward on the issue as quickly as possible to ensure that all elements of the Stormont House Agreement can remain in place.

I will say a few words about the second motion before the House today, which concerns two Excess Votes for the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I confirm that the Public Accounts Committee has considered those Excess Votes and recommended that the Assembly grant its approval. I am anxious that both Departments ensure that the circumstances leading to the breaches are not repeated, and I note that steps have been taken in both cases to ensure that the risk of a repeat is now minimised.


12.45 pm

Before I conclude my opening speech, I will address the amendment put forward by the Member for North Antrim. It calls for a £604 million reduction to the proposed amounts of cash and resources as set out in the Main Estimates. The Member is trying to use the Main Estimates debate to reopen the final Budget position that was agreed by the Executive. In doing so, he is demonstrating a lack of understanding of our budgeting framework and financial process. The Supply resolution on the Main Estimates cannot be used to propose changes to the Budget position. Only the Executive can agree budget allocations, based on recommendations put forward by me as Finance Minister. The Executive have now agreed their 2015-16 Budget. That was voted through the Assembly in January this year. That Budget stands and is reflected in the Main Estimates here today.

I look forward to debating the Budget Bill and, indeed, the Main Estimates. I request the support of Members to approve further Supply to enable vital public services to continue beyond the current provision in the Vote on Account.

Mr Allister: I have two little grandsons aged four and two. Very occasionally, they come to overnight with us when their parents have to be away. When that happens, the four-year-old will bounce into the house with his little suitcase and say, "I'm here on a pretend holiday." It is quite funny from a four-year-old. There is nothing funny about a Finance Minister coming to the House and putting before us a pretend Budget and pretend Estimates; pretending that she has and will have all the money anticipated in the 2015-16 Budget Bill; pretending that we have not had the reneging on welfare reform; pretending that we do not have a £604 million black hole in our budgetary arrangements; and pretending that we can simply carry on as if none of that had ever happened.

Of course, in doing that, the Minister herself is performing a considerable U-turn, because, during the welfare reform debate back at the end of May and in many public media interviews at that time, she identified the £604 million black hole in the Budget that had resulted. She told the House:

"we will not put our hands to supporting such a Budget". — [Official Report, Vol 105, No 1, p82, col 1].

Yet the Budget that she will bring tomorrow and upon which these Estimates are based is precisely that: a Budget with a £604 million black hole.

One of the main functions of the Assembly is financial management. The Minister suggested that I was misguided in my amendment. I refer the Minister to her own Department's guidance manual on Supply Estimates in Northern Ireland. I need go no further than the second paragraph of the foreword, where it says:

"As this manual will endeavour to explain, the Supply Estimates are at the heart of public spending control. It is through the Estimates that the Executive seeks the Assembly’s authority for its spending plans".

The exercise in which we are engaged is fundamental to the budgetary arrangements that prevail. Who is to say that this House has not got the sovereign right to amend the Estimates? Of course it has. It is this House and this House alone that can give the imprimatur of approval to the Estimates and the spending plans, so this House is well within its powers in considering that.

Mr Speaker, the reality is that we are being asked to set a Budget, which, as the Minister knows, is not balanced, and which, as the Minister knows, will hit the buffers. If the House and the Executive cannot set a balanced Budget, the Executive cannot govern. That is what it comes down to. Of course, all of this scenario is a product of the failure of the system of government. The crisis that the Minister alludes to is the product of that. In mandatory coalition, parties have vetoes, which Sinn Féin recklessly exercises. It can blow hot and cold, as it has on welfare reform, and hole the budgetary process below the waterline, as it so cavalierly has done. The fact that that can happen is a product of the failure of the system of government. Today is an attempt to ignore that and an attempt to prop that up at the expense of all credibility.

This exercise makes the Assembly and the Executive an even greater laughing stock than it is already. We are going to pass Estimates even though we know the money is not there. We know there is a £604 million black hole, but we are going to pretend that all is well. It has been well labelled a fantasy Budget — a phantom Budget. When a parliamentary Assembly gets to the point of debating and approving fantasy financial arrangements, it fast loses any remaining shred of credibility. That is where we are.

It also, of course, is folly to totally abandon any sense of financial probity. Yes, these Estimates add up, but they add up to a phantom figure. In that sense, they are an escapade in false accounting, because the Minister knows — we all know — that whatever they say, there is a £604 billion black hole.

I was thinking about what a Sinn Féin Minister would do, if we had one — perish the thought. He or she would probably do pretty much what the Minister is going to do. They would pretend that there was money there that was not there. I would not expect anything better from Sinn Féin in that regard. I would not expect them, on their performance, to have any regard to financial probity. I would not be at all surprised that they would want to spend money that they do not have. They would probably produce a fantasy Budget as well. Of course, in the producing of this fantasy Budget, the Minister is buying time for the Sinn Féin shenanigans on the budgetary front in the hope against hope that something will turn up.

What will happen further down the road? That is a question I would like the Minister to address in her reply. She has set out this fantasy Budget, which is £604 million, in her terms, short. If nothing changes, what happens? What happens when she gets to the spring Supplementary Estimates? What happens when she gets to the Budget Bill, next year? It is quite clear from the guidance that she cannot amend these Estimates without the consent of the Executive. Para 1·8 of her guidance manual states that any significant changes to the Supply Estimates, in terms of content, must be cleared by DFP with the Executive.

So, we are hurtling down the road, spending money we do not have, and we reach the point where, effectively, the money has run out. The Minister wants to revise the Estimates to save the situation and to make budgetary changes to reconcile and remedy the situation. What does she think is going to happen? Does she think that Sinn Féin is simply going to say, "Yes, that's all right. Suddenly, we've had a conversion on financial probity".

Mrs Foster: Will the Member give way?

Mrs Foster: Has the Member not just made the argument for why his amendment should not succeed, when he made reference to the fact that it is only the Executive that can change the Supply resolution?

Mr Allister: I am sorry. When she reflects on what she has said, the Minister may regret that she made that intervention, because the wording of para 1.8 of the manual is:

"Any ... changes to the Supply Estimates".

The Supply Estimates have not yet been made. Any changes after today, after the Assembly approves them, to the Supply Estimates — which are what we are talking about today and which will come with a vote of approval for them — any changes thereafter can only be made with the Executive's approval, but we are not at that point. We are now embarking on the journey to take ourselves to that point. We take ourselves to the folly of holding ourselves ransom to Sinn Féin saying: "We are quite happy to spend money that we do not have. We block you from making any changes to these Estimates." That is tough, as far as they are concerned.

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

Mr Allister: The purpose of this amendment is to show what a balanced Budget would look like in the context of the folly of negating welfare reform. The House should be facing up to that folly, rather than pandering to, and practising, the economics of fantasy.

Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister and senior DFP officials are due to brief the Committee for Finance and Personnel at its meeting this Wednesday in relation to the Main Estimates and the associated Budget (No. 2) Bill. The Committee, in its scrutiny function, has an important role in deciding whether to grant accelerated passage to Budget Bills under the power in Standing Order 42.2. Importantly, that is on the basis that:

"that the committee is satisfied that there has been appropriate consultation with it on the ... expenditure proposals ... in the Bill".

I thank the Minister for agreeing to come before the Committee to answer any questions that it may have at this week's meeting.

The Committee will consider whether it is satisfied in that regard, and I will write to the Speaker on the outcome of its deliberations. Normally, the Committee would have received an oral briefing from DFP on the Estimates and Budget Bill before the Supply resolution debate. That did not occur; nonetheless, given that the Estimates and Bill reflect the Executive's agreed Budget for 2015-16, I can confirm that there was significant engagement between the Committee and DFP on both the draft and final Budgets.

On voluntary exit schemes, the Committee heard from the head of the Civil Service and other senior officials on the overall position across the wider public sector. According to the previous Minister, the schemes will realise estimated annual pay bill savings of £500 million per annum by 2018-19 across the public sector. The Committee has also been advised that the Civil Service pay bill reduction for the second half of this financial year is estimated at £26 million and that the anticipated savings figure for the wider public sector is £70 million. However, the Committee has not received confirmation of the precise figure for projected pay bill savings, which has been included within departmental baselines for this financial year, including the breakdown across Departments and other public bodies, and perhaps that is something that the Minister can provide in closing today's debate.

Two further points on the schemes require clarification. Given the savings opportunity offered by the voluntary exit schemes in the face of the current difficulties over further budgetary reductions, the Committee questioned officials at last week's session to establish the scope for decoupling the borrowing power or finding other flexibility to progress the schemes and achieve the projected pay bill reductions in the current financial year. For some months now, we have been seeking a briefing from DFP on the outcome of the validation study of welfare reform costs, which was commissioned last autumn by the previous Minister. That is a significant delay which has been on the Committee's books for some time, and it is a further issue on which it would be helpful to receive clarification.

It would also be helpful to receive clarity, at this stage, on the further budgetary reductions resulting from the Chancellor's recent announcement of £3 billion in reduced spending with the prospect of additional in-year austerity measures by the Conservative Government in the coming weeks. The figure of £38 million has been referred to, and the implications of that and what is down the line are very worrying indeed.


1.00 pm

Given the risks around unresolved issues, the Committee invited the Minister to attend last week's meeting to discuss scenarios that could arise if no progress is made, and what the available options might be. While the Minister did not take up that particular invitation, the Committee received independent legal advice from the Assembly's Legal Services on the concern around whether Departments would have the power to use accruing resources in the event of the Budget (No. 2) Bill not being agreed by the end of July. That detailed and robust advice — the gist of which was shared with the Minister — set out a logical and lawful way forward in that scenario, given the Department's powers of direction. While the Minister has responded with a contrary legal view, focusing more on the setting of limits, I believe the clarification that the Committee has obtained could be a helpful contribution for all concerned, should such circumstances arise in the future.

Today’s Estimates, and the related Bill, present a further scenario in anticipating the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. I therefore look forward to receiving further information and clarity on the issues I have highlighted ahead of the Committee’s decision regarding accelerated passage on Wednesday. Given that the Committee will not receive a briefing from the Department about the Supply resolution for the Excess Votes 2013-14 until Wednesday, I am not in a position to reflect a Committee position on that today.

To give a party view on the motion before us today, it is quite clear that there is potentially — indeed there has already been — wave after wave of cuts from London, from an economically incompetent Government blinded by ideology. The crisis, referred to earlier by the proposer of the amendment, does not come from here, but from London and the budgets that have been foisted on us from there. Those financial decisions are ideologically led and, increasingly, economists in Britain are finding it quite difficult to live with the basic economics of them.

As MLAs, we have to ask ourselves whether we are here to stand up for people, local communities and local businesses, or to act as puppets for a Tory Administration who cut budgets so deep that the Executive cannot effectively function. On Friday, 77 of the best-known academic economists outlined huge concern at the British Chancellor, George Osborne's, new budget surplus law proposal. It ignores basic economics and shifts debt to households, consumers and businesses. The risk of a personal debt crisis to rival 2008 is very real indeed.

The Scottish Finance Minister, John Swinney, has blasted cuts to this year's Budget as being completely and utterly unacceptable. The Scottish Parliament has already agreed its Budget. The Welsh Finance Minister also attacked George Osborne for his £50 million cut to their in-year Budget. We need a similar position from the Finance Minister and Executive here. We need a robust position and a defence of our Executive and our planning in relation to the economy, not only for a number of months ahead into the financial year, but for the next four to five years. The British Government make these decisions with little reference to the devolved Administrations. Scotland did not vote for the Tories; Wales did not vote for the Tories; and the North most certainly did not vote for the Tories. Those three jurisdictions most certainly did not vote for the economic policies that are being shoved down our throats year after year.

There is no doubt that there are huge challenges ahead, and I believe that we need to act collectively and to stand shoulder to shoulder with Wales and Scotland, who find themselves in a similar position. All of the Governments concerned — in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh — are being increasingly undermined by a London Administration who ignore the fact that none of those Administrations are interested in the economic ideology being pursued by the Tory Government. Of course, London was in economic crisis four to five years ago. At this point, it was supposed to be out of it, but it is not, so it is quite clear that those economic policies have failed and need to be challenged by all the parties in this Executive.

We do not need a softly-softly approach from some parties in the Assembly. I believe that, if we adopt a collective voice with Scotland and Wales, the Tories will be forced to sit up and take notice. The situation that we are in at the moment is untenable and unsustainable. As locally elected politicians, we have to act in our people's best interests, and that is not about bending the knee to a Tory Administration.

Mr Girvan: I will speak in favour of the Minister's motion. I will deal with the Excess Votes at the outset. One area that we had a concern about was that the cause of the Department of Education's Excess Vote was arm's-length bodies. There is a major concern about accountability in some arm's-length bodies and how they deal with it. As a consequence, they overspend. That came out in the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report, and we, as a Government, have to look at it and ensure that we are making those arm's-length bodies totally accountable for every penny that they spend.

The motion is to do with a Budget that we agreed on 27 January this year, albeit one that was very much predicated on the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and all its outworkings. As a consequence of its non-implementation up to now, there is a potential cost and a loss to our block grant over time, but my ambition is not necessarily to roll over and say that we have not won that war. We intend to fight and continue to see what we can bring back as opposed to saying, "Let us rule out all the moneys that there would have been as a result of the Stormont House Agreement". The figure of £604 million has been mentioned. I appreciate that there are costs associated up to now.

The voluntary exit scheme was one of the programmes put forward, and the savings that it could deliver are on hold until such times as we move forward with those who believe that our paymaster, the United Kingdom Government, will act. We are part of the United Kingdom, and, therefore, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have to accept the democracy that spoke to set up the Conservative Government. I appreciate that the Chancellor and the Government will put forward their spending plans in the autumn, but that will really reflect upon years further forward.

I will deal with our Supply resolution and the spend that we have for our Supply. We have to work with the Budget that we agreed on 27 January, albeit knowing that there could well be adjustments to it in-year and being aware of the outworkings of it, but the longer we delay in bringing forward —

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Girvan: I will, yes.

Mr Allister: Can the Member, from his experience, explain to the House how, if matters unfold with a continuing deadlock and the £604 million gap becomes a very overt reality, the matter will be rectified? How do you then alter the spending authority of the Estimates or the Budget without the consent of the recalcitrants who have put you in that position in the first place?

Mr Speaker: Given the extent of that intervention, I want to make it clear that, as Members have 10 minutes to contribute, there is no extra time. So, if you are taking interventions in future, remember that.

Mr Girvan: Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I appreciate that that leaves us in a very difficult position, but, as the Minister stated, should we not get implementation of the way forward, we cannot continue to move forward when we cannot balance our books at the end of the year, and that is where the difficulty arises. Ultimately, it is vital to push forward and continue the work to try to get a resolution, but the longer we leave it, the more in-year cuts we will have to make to balance the books, and that is a difficulty.

We have been very successful in ensuring that we held down our regional rate. Northern Ireland has held its regional rate for the last number of years and has just had an inflationary rise over that period to such an extent that we have a 1·4% rise in the current year — other regions of the United Kingdom have worked out at an average of 1·9% — and that has been a great help. The implementation of the small business rate relief scheme has also been a great help and ensured that almost 50% of businesses in Northern Ireland were able to avail themselves of some form of rate relief. That message was given to us as elected representatives, and we have had to take that on board.

We have to cut our cloth according to the amount that we are given, and it is vital that we do so. For the Estimates, we have a cash sum of £8·3 billion and a resource of just over £9 billion, and we will have to work within that amount for the forthcoming year. We have some difficulty in trying to ensure that the economics of the whole issue are brought forward. Mention was made of what the Scottish Executive have done and how they have agreed a Budget, albeit a Budget that has not taken a major hit for the non-implementation of welfare reform. We have concerns about many aspects of welfare reform, but, ultimately, they are not taking that hit.
Those who say that they are here to protect the most vulnerable in our community are removing money from vital budgets that would deliver health and education throughout our Province. A very interesting piece of graffiti appeared on a wall in west Belfast: "We don't want the IRA, we just want our DLA". That is quite interesting, and some of these people come up with wonderful ideas. The graffiti did not appear to stay very long, but that is the sort of thing that some people have been putting forward. That says more about what is going on here than anything else, because it is important that the most vulnerable are protected.

At the end of the day, everybody is suffering as a consequence of the non-implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, and it is vital that we get the work done. We are not rolling over and saying that we will just accept those hits. We will fight to try to ensure that we can move forward, balance our Budget and deliver for Northern Ireland.

Mr McKinney: I am sorry that I was not in for the Minister's opening remarks. I apologise that my colleague Dominic Bradley MLA, our finance spokesman, is unable to attend today.

During the last debate on the Supply resolution, Dominic Bradley reflected on how we were in a challenging financial situation, and the position has not got any better, of course; it has got worse. The SDLP has a long-standing view on the 2015 Budget, a Budget that is backed by parties here, including Sinn Féin, which called it the best deal possible. However, my colleagues and I recognise that this Budget was not a great deal and further realised that, if a Conservative Government were elected, it would mean further cuts. I recognise that many people did not expect a majority Conservative Government after the election, so we may have been blindsided — I think that we have — by the prospect of in-year cuts.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel said that Mr Osborne announced that a further £38 million of cuts could be made to the 2015-16 Budget. I welcome some comment from the Minister on whether there are flexibilities around that. However, it seems that we have no choice but to wait with bated breath until 8 July. Also, we will be opposing Mr Allister's amendment.


1.15 pm

We have been, and continue to be, extremely concerned by the budgetary pressure faced by the Northern Ireland Executive and the impact on front-line services. The Budget settlement is, without doubt, the most severe that Northern Ireland has faced in recent times, and the prospect of more in-year cuts would further affect departmental allocations. Frankly, it is not the way to stimulate an economy.

As Mr Girvan said, we welcome the Supply resolution for the Excess Vote, which provides further funding for Education and Health. Every Department has severe budget restraints, but I welcome the money that is being provided to those two vital Departments. It is in this context, as SDLP health spokesperson, that the remainder of my contribution will focus on health spend.

In that regard, today's debate is an important one. It is essential to recognise the job of the health service here. It serves two million people and costs almost £5 billion a year. It is vital, therefore, that every pound is spent productively; but today's subject is around the money and, in the health service context, how we are delivering for the money that we have or do not have.

We all know that the narrative we are facing at the moment is that we are facing ever-increasing waiting times; issues with hospital deaths and non-reporting A&E crises; incomprehensible breaches in 12-hour and four-hour targets; we are paying twice because of operations brought in through another system; our health staff are increasingly under significant stress and pressure; cancer drugs are being denied to our most vulnerable; and the service is witnessing massive wastage with bank and agency staff spend, among others. The public rightly have a genuine concern for how the system is being run.

The SDLP has indicated these failures in the health service time and again, and it is clearly very much in the public mind; but, remember, our current health financial situation has not yet been impacted on by welfare reform. It is brought into the argument all the time, but an important point to remember is that Health was protected in this year's Budget and was given an additional £204 million to protect front-line health services; but that has not stopped our series of Health Ministers seeking to hide behind the welfare issue.

The service here employs almost 55,000 people, who are dedicated professional staff working to the highest standards; but it is concerning to see the ongoing pressures suffered by staff on the front line and the numerous escalation measures in crisis management protocols that have been instigated. These are clear symptoms of the problem; they are not the cause. I think that the cause lies in policy and strategic direction.

We all know about the major change agenda in the system called Transforming Your Care (TYC). That represents, in essence, a number of things: first, a consensus about what is wrong with the system, and, secondly, a plan about how to deal with it. The SDLP has had suspicions about a privatisation agenda, but few have disagreed with the concept of taking care closer to the home and that that was the way to go. The plan was to shift healthcare provision from centralised institutions and into the community. If it was about anything, it was about the future strategic direction of health provision here. It was meant to be a three-year to five-year plan. It was anticipated that it would cost over £70 million and that we would see a stabilisation of health spend by now because, remember, that was in 2011, and we would see savings of £50 million per annum. If we had implemented it, we would not be in the state we are in today. That was the TYC business case endorsed by the Executive.

In light of the recent monumental healthcare failures and financial crises, we have to ask ourselves whether the health service is reforming for the better and whether the plan is still valid. As I said, that was four years ago. We would have had reasonable expectation of progress; but the SDLP has been asking questions about the plan, its budget, implementation, measurement and targets. In the end, we have a patchwork of targets, with trusts making decisions in silos, cutting community services, creating health inequalities, and with no central strategic plan.

As you know, during the tail end of last year, the five health and social care (HSC) trusts made a number of supposedly temporary service cuts as a result of financial crisis. We would like to know whether those are still temporary or not.

However, these cuts will be further compounded in this financial year, especially if the leaked commissioning plans published by the 'Irish News' are anything to go by.

Financial crisis or not, these cuts are completely counter-strategic to the TYC plan and do nothing but increase pressure on the system and negatively impact on the care that patients receive. It is the SDLP that has been saying that, and it has become increasingly clear that more people are beginning to accept the narrative, none more so than the recent Liam Donaldson review, the Audit Office's general report and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's report into health and social care. Remember, we have asked some very basic questions over the last two years. Where was the plan? What were the targets? How were they being implemented? We have had two years of obfuscation, and now we are hearing something different. Now, the plan is not so much about a plan —

Mr Wilson: Will the Member give way?

Mr McKinney: I am going to take the Speaker's advice, Mr Wilson, because there is no extra minute for giving way.

Now, the plan is not so much a plan: according to some departmental officials, it is a "philosophy"; according to the Health Minister, it is about the "principles" of TYC; according to the new Health Board chief, TYC was in the "context" of 2011. The context of 2011 has increased in 2015. You can see where they are going here. Is the plan still a plan? In that context we should all be worried that the concept of measurable change has been diluted and that millions of pounds have already been spent with questionable noticeable change.

I have already, in the midst of the headlines around that issue, approached the Audit Office to investigate TYC. I am deeply worried that what we are hearing now is an attempt to throw a smokescreen around a failed plan. We have heard the Minister talk a lot about reform since taking his post. He says that he wants a world-class health service and that he wants health staff to embrace reform to tackle resistance to change. I am sorry that that is where the Minister finds himself: appealing to staff for change.

The TYC document made one very important point at its core. It said that failing to plan for the future would lead to unplanned and haphazard change that would not be in the best interests of patients. That is exactly what we have been seeing. We have also heard Simon Hamilton say that he has established a regional leadership group to drive transformational change, but he had all that in the plan: he had a consensus ahead of the plan, which developed into the targets that were never implemented. He had a plan, but he is rapidly turning into a man with no plan. In light of that, the Minister must re-evaluate the Transforming Your Care model so that the system does not further deteriorate and staff are not placed under further pressure. I will accept an intervention at this point.

Mr Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way. He talks about vagueness and there being no plan etc. What is the SDLP's plan for the issue before us: how we ensure that there are sufficient resources to keep on the business of government in the Health Department and in all other Departments for the rest of the year?

Mr McKinney: In the context of what I have been saying, we want money spent properly; we want a proper Budget. We said from the outset in 2011 that there were insufficient funds. We need to see proper funding for government here.

Mr Cree: I am pleased to speak to the House on the Supply resolution. However, the situation is quite different from those in the past. We are not aware of the 2014-15 provision out-turn and therefore have no idea of the departmental budget management performance during the last financial year. We do not know the amount of the resources that the Executive can carry forward through the Budget exchange scheme, and we have not yet had sight of the June monitoring round and its outworkings. Has any money been returned to the Treasury, and has our financial transaction capital budget been fully expended? What is the situation with respect to moneys in the centre? Have all the Barnett consequentials been received and have all welfare penalties been paid?

This time last year, I once again asked the then Minister for an update on the progress — I was being optimistic — of the review of the financial process, because that matter had been stalled since 2012. He very kindly did so and undertook to have further discussions with the Minister of Education, with a view to delivering a significant positive reform of the direct rule inherited publications and financial processes. I would like to know what the current situation is.

We all know that the elephant in the room is the failure of Sinn Féin to honour the agreement that it made at Stormont House last year. Welfare reform and its cost have not been agreed, and that is a major unknown. The Estimates need to take that significant fact into account.

The Stormont House Agreement included provision for £50 million of additional capital DEL for education. At this time, it cannot be included in the Budget because of the disagreement. The voluntary exit scheme is dependent on £700 million of borrowing from the reinvestment and reform initiative. It is also part of the Stormont House Agreement. In the absence of agreement, the money is simply not there, and £200 million of it has been anticipated for the current year. Thirty million pounds is planned to deal with the past, £100 million to repay the loan from the United Kingdom reserve, £114 million for welfare penalties and a further £100 million to cover extra capital projects. That equates to a black hole of some £600 million. How then can we possibly approve a Budget that does not stack up? Mr Allister's amendment attempts to address that issue.

We all recognise the tight fiscal framework. This year's resource budget has been reduced by 1·6% in real terms. I am sorry to say that the future does not look any better. The Minister referred to that. The Office for Budget Responsibility projections suggest that Northern Ireland could see its resource DEL being cut back by 13% in real terms by 2020.

Mr Wilson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Cree: Are you itching to go?

Mr Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way. He indicated that he believes that the amendment from Mr Allister addresses the problem, but, first, the amendment does not state where the £600 million comes off, so we are voting in the dark on that one. Secondly, the pressure on those whom the Member has quite rightly condemned for not implementing the Stormont House Agreement would be lifted if we were to remove the £600 million from the Budget.

Mr Cree: I agree with the Member —

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Cree: I will certainly. I agree with the second point that the former Minister makes, but Mr Allister is better equipped to answer the first one.

Mr Allister: Maybe the Member will suggest to Mr Wilson that he read the last five or six lines of the amendment to see where it is coming off of necessity. On the point about keeping on the pressure, surely the Minister's approach is to take the pressure off Sinn Féin and merely kick the can down the road.

Mr Cree: Thank you for that. I will go back to where I was at.

The days of handouts are over, and we have to manage devolution and move the Assembly forward. In January of this year, the former Minister of Finance and Personnel announced his intention to create a Northern Ireland investment fund. Its purpose was to lever additional finance to be used for investment in infrastructure. Some £40·9 million was forecast to be in the fund this year. Perhaps Minister Foster will update Members on the current situation with the fund. On the subject of funds, it was also announced that a social innovation fund would be created to provide specific groups with access to loan financing. Again, an update from the Minister would be appreciated.

In January, the former Minister, in addressing his final Budget, chided those of us who did not support the Budget. He said that although the Budget was:

"infinitely better for our public services and our economy than we could have hoped for, tough times lie ahead." — [Official Report, Vol 101, No 1, p9, col 1].

It is certainly a lot tougher now with a £600 million shortfall. The Estimates and the resultant Budget are not now sustainable, thanks to Sinn Féin, assisted by the SDLP. This is now make-your-mind-up time for the Assembly. We need to move forward and demonstrate to the Northern Ireland public that the Assembly is capable of delivering. We are currently haemorrhaging £2 million a week because of the lack of welfare reform. I hope that today will prove that, in political terms, we can turn the corner for the betterment of all in Northern Ireland.

Mr Attwood: Will the Member give way?

Mr Cree: You are just in time.


1.30 pm

Mr Attwood: I anticipated your speech coming to an end. Do the Member and his party agree or not agree that, on the face of it, the British Government are in breach of the Stormont House Agreement, in that, last week, they announced £38 million of cuts to the 2015-16 Budget, when Stormont House says — the Minister may wish to respond to this in due course — that the Budget that the DUP and Sinn Féin brought forward was "a final ... budget"? Does your party agree or not agree that a final Budget, which the British Government said had to be presented to the House, was then unpicked by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer last week when "final" became final less £38 million?

Mr Cree: The Member raises a very interesting point, but there is a lot more to it than that. In fact, we really have to say focused on the issue today. The issue today is that a Budget has been presented, but it does not stack up because of the failure of the Stormont House Agreement and the parties that have changed their minds about it. That is it.

Mr Wilson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Cree: Go ahead. Yes.

Mr Speaker: The Member is finished. I call Mrs Judith Cochrane.

Mr Cree: I will give way to the Member if he wants to say sorry — [Laughter.]

Mr Speaker: That was a very interesting contribution and cocktail of interventions. Mrs Judith Cochrane.

Mrs Cochrane: I will give way to Mr Wilson if he wants. [Laughter.]

Mr Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way. I do not even know what she was going to say. Would she agree with me that, regardless of how the SDLP tries to wriggle out of the embarrassment that it clearly finds itself in, having put public services in jeopardy, the final Budget referred to in the Stormont House Agreement was for 2014-15? Of course, we are now into a new financial year. Had it acted, we would have had the final Budget through and Departments would have had surety about the money that they would have available for this year.

Mrs Cochrane: I concur with the Member.

Mr Attwood: Will the Member give way?

Mrs Cochrane: No, I will not give way, thank you. I want to move on.

I support the motion, albeit with a degree of reluctance.

Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would you review the comments just made by Mr Wilson? He referred to the final Budget in Stormont House as the 2014-15 Budget, when everybody knows that it is the 2015-16 Budget.

Mr Wilson: Sorry.

Mr Speaker: I accept his apology from a sedentary position. I am really looking forward to hearing what Mrs Cochrane has to tell us.

Mrs Cochrane: I knew that Mr Wilson was referring to 2015-16.

I call on the House to show responsibility today by passing the Supply resolution and the Budget legislation to begin the process of recovering financial sustainability. At this moment in time, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly collectively are acting in an irresponsible and irrational manner, and it is easy to understand why many people are cynical and frustrated with us all and their support for devolution is being tested. At present, there is no clear financial framework in place. No financial decisions are being taken to ensure that the Northern Ireland Government remain in budget, and the absence of delivery on welfare reform brings considerable financial consequences and risks the Stormont House Agreement, including the financial assistance opportunities for progressing a shared future, dealing with the past and rebalancing the economy.

It is clear that proceeding with the Supply resolution and the remaining Budget legislation is the least irresponsible option before us. I say that even though Alliance opposed the current Budget at the Executive in January. We did that because we believed it was not sufficiently strategic and because some difficult yet necessary reforms were not being pursued. We subsequently supported, however, the Supply resolution in February to give the Departments the legal authority to begin to spend in the new financial year. I suppose you could say that we opposed the Executive policy on the Budget, but, as the decisions had been taken democratically, we then faced up to our responsibility in government and supported the mechanisms to turn the previous policy decision into reality. We are now in June, and the second Supply resolution and Budget (No. 2) Bill need to be passed to put in place the remainder of the Supply decisions and legal spending power. Without that, we will be subject to even greater pressures.

Our central objective must be to do whatever we can to reduce the scale of cuts to public services and to the various levers for economic development. The consequences of not passing the legislation are a complete financial vacuum, no decisions on the way forward, financial uncertainty and likelihood of very severe cuts to follow. Avoiding or minimising that eventuality is of primary importance.

I believe that Mr Allister's amendment could actually stop any process that accepts the implementation of welfare reform, the Stormont House Agreement or any unilateral action by the UK Government to continue with other aspects of the Stormont House Agreement, so Alliance will oppose the amendment.

Of course, passing the Supply resolution does not in itself change any of the underlying financial and political challenges, but it will at the very least provide some space and opportunity where agreement can be found on implementing welfare reform, delivering the Stormont House Agreement and working towards balancing our books. This is now the time for all MLAs to show maturity and responsibility, to rise above narrow party politics and to show a willingness to confront difficult challenges.

Actions in recent weeks by the nationalist parties and the Greens are making Northern Ireland ungovernable and threatening the survival of the institutions. Indeed, it was quite ironic to hear a Sinn Féin MLA talk earlier about others as being "blinded by ideology". Those who oppose the Supply resolution and Budget Bill are, in effect, voting for bigger cuts, and I have yet to hear a credible alternative. I have heard talk of a fantasy Budget, but I think that the bigger issue is the fantasy economics from some Members of the House. The fact is that Northern Ireland is in a major hole. I therefore urge all Members today to be part of a solution and vote for the motion, so that we can continue to work towards a resolution and recover financial sustainability.

Mr Clarke (The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate in my capacity as Chair of the Committee for Regional Development. I thank my colleague the Minister of Finance for bringing the motion to the House today. I note that the role of the Estimates is set out the detailed spending plans for the Northern Ireland Departments. I welcome the detail, as it is proving more and more difficult — as we debated last week — to get that level of detail from the Department for Regional Development.

I acknowledge that this financial year is going to be a difficult one for the Department for Regional Development and, indeed, for all Executive Departments, as the austerity measures coming from Westminster make themselves even more known to us. However, it is therefore imperative that the Department manages those budgets effectively in order to achieve its aim; namely, improving the quality of life for everyone in Northern Ireland through the provision, maintenance and enhancement of a range of essential infrastructure services. That role will, in the coming months, also be enhanced to ensure that the Department continues to shape Northern Ireland's long-term strategic development.

The resources being committed today are not insignificant: table 1·3 (a) and (b) of the Estimates, as referred to in the motion, shows sums of just under £306 million for resources and £414 million in cash. That represents approximately 45% of the total resource requirement and 50% of the net cash requirement. As I said, those are not insignificant totals; totals that may be supported through in-year monitoring rounds. It is worth noting that, whilst the Department continues to bemoan the reductions to its budgets and bandies about figures of 15% reductions, that provision is only 1·04% lower than the final net provision for 2014-15.

It is imperative that the Department for Regional Development manages these totals in a prudent yet imaginative fashion. It is encouraging, for example, to see allocations in respect of the EU INTERREG programme, because the Committee has for a long time encouraged the Department to make best use of the funding available through that and other EU programmes, such as the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T). I commend the Department for being very successful in acquiring funding through those programmes. Equally, I commend the Executive and the Minister of Finance for providing the match funding for those allocations. It would be remiss of me if I did not commend the Committee for the work that it does in encouraging departmental applications for funding and, indeed, as it has done in the past and will continue to do, negotiating and supporting those applications directly in the European Parliament and the EU Commission.

Last week, we had the opportunity to debate in the House, and indeed at the Committee, the impact of the current departmental budget allocations. We were critical of the Department's over-reliance on the in-year monitoring, and, subsequently, the Committee agreed to write to the Minister of Finance to ask whether a balance can be achieved between establishing appropriate baseline allocations and in-year monitoring bids.

During the plenary debates and in Committee last week, a great deal of attention focused on the lack of investment in roads and water infrastructure. It is worth noting, therefore, that the net total DEL is significantly higher in these two areas. The Committee would therefore expect the Department to put these to the best and most effective use to delay or defer adding to the roads structural backlog and the risk of infraction proceedings, particularly in respect of the Ballycastle waste water treatment works.

Of course, a large proportion of the allocation to Northern Ireland Water is in respect of the Executive's Programme for Government commitment to ensure that there are no domestic water charges during this mandate. I note from tomorrow's Order Paper that the Minister for Regional Development will introduce the Water and Sewerage Services Bill. It is intended that the Second Stage will be scheduled shortly, allowing the Committee to receive it before the summer recess. The Bill will extend the Executive's Programme for Government commitment towards non-domestic water charges and also seeks means to reduce the risk of flooding through the use of sustainable drainage systems. As the House will be aware, the Executive have previously had to invest significant amounts in compensation to homeowners who were impacted by the flash floods of recent years. It is therefore important that we re-examine the means to reduce or negate the risk of flooding. I look forward to receiving the Bill into the Committee shortly.

The next two highest allocations are in respect of railway services and road-passenger services. I would like to make a couple of points on these areas. First, we welcome the announcement of a new Translink chief executive and wish the current chief executive, David Strahan, all the best in his future endeavours. David brought a great deal of propriety and much-needed transparency to the role. I would hope that his successor, Chris Conway, will continue in the same vein as David. We look forward to working with Chris to ensure that we have a transport operator that is efficient and fit for purpose.

Secondly, the Committee is unanimous in its support of the Coleraine to Londonderry rail project and has shown its support over the years. This track is essential to the continued economic and social development of the north-west, and it is imperative that connectivity between the two largest cities in Northern Ireland is maintained and enhanced. However, whilst we continue to be supportive of the project and look forward to seeing it completed, as a scrutiny Committee, we cannot ignore the doubling of the budget through the incompetence of officials in the Department for Regional Development and Translink.

The Committee will soon complete its inquiry into the mishandling of this exercise and would hope that the House will support the conclusions that it has made to date. It will also continue to scrutinise Translink, as indeed it will scrutinise NIW, to ensure that the public purse is being used to the most appropriate means. We are scheduled to receive the Translink accounts very soon and will forensically examine these as we have in the past. It is no secret that we will focus in on the level of reserves — reserves, which, unlike those of the community transport sector and Disability Action, have continually, over the years, been bolstered by public funds. If it is right and proper for the Department to tell rural community transport providers to use their reserves, it is equally correct that private organisations that are supported by public funding are asked to do likewise.

I briefly referred to Disability Action and community transport. It is only right and proper that I congratulate the Minister for Regional Development on his decision to re-categorise his bid in June monitoring as "inescapable" in respect of the essential role that these organisations play. In debates last week, the Committee attracted some criticism for not offering alternatives to departmental decisions. This is yet another example of where the Committee has offered alternative solutions, and it is one which we as a Committee very much support.

The money in these Estimates is required to allow the Department for Regional Development to plan, develop and manage sustainable transportation networks and continue to contribute to the health and well-being of communities through the provision of clean and safe water and sewerage works. They are necessary for the economic, environmental and social development of the Northern Ireland economy. I therefore welcome and support the motion.

Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. We can and must create a wealthier, more equal society. We can do it on a foundation of participation, prosperity and fairness. Fairness does not follow after growth: fairness delivers growth. We want to build sustainable economic growth. To achieve that, we must explore every potential avenue for economic growth, but we also must deliver for our people.


1.45 pm

In this current economic and financial climate, in which the Conservative Administration have cut £1·5 billion from our local budget and are intent on delivering further cuts, we must also ensure that we here try to balance our books and protect local public services. Our people and business have had to face the challenges brought about by the economic mismanagement of successive Westminster Governments. We have a vision in Sinn Féin for a local economy that will drive quicker, more sustainable and more equal economic growth, with opportunities for all our people to flourish. We want to build a public sector and an economy that reflect the unique character, skills and values of our people.

Mr Wilson: Will the Member give way?

Ms Boyle: No, I will not give way, Mr Wilson, if you do not mind.

The current economic position demonstrates why we must deliver that vision. Right now, we face an unprecedented economic challenge of the no-growth austerity agenda from Westminster, without the powers at our disposal to fully drive economic growth and prosperity. The new Tory Government cuts are equal to 5·2% of GDP. If those cuts progress unchallenged, the local impact will be severe. The Tories have no coherent economic plan. Everyone from Paul Krugman to the IMF's Christine Lagarde have called for a plan B around this.

Sinn Féin has argued for an approach that puts investment at the heart of the solution. What makes the situation truly tragic is that the Chancellor's actions are, in themselves, self-defeating. I call on Sir George Osborne to end his obsession with austerity. It is time he listened and time he learned. If he will not, it is time he left us; it is time he left it to the people in this Assembly and Executive to shape a better economic future using the limited powers that we have. We are focused on helping local households and businesses through this economic crisis. That must be our job here in this Assembly. The economic challenges facing us are serious. Uniting to help our businesses and people to flourish, and uniting to build the next generation of economic success, will deliver for our people. We can build a new economic future for this island, North and South.

I want to, if you will allow me, Cheann Comhairle, refer to the financial pressures that have already been mentioned in health. The recent Audit Office report on the health and social care sector and the financial pressures in our health care system notes the scale of the financial difficulty facing our health and social care trusts. They were so severe in 2013 and 2014, despite receiving additional funding of over £115 million. The HSC bodies have found it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets in the face of rising inflationary costs and pressure. That adds to waiting times and clinical and social negligence claims around patients and safety.

We could do so much more if we had full control of our resources and economic decision-making. If you are unsure of that, Westminster's economic record is there for us all to see. The economic difficulties that we face are a product of the failed economic management of successive Westminster Governments. The Tories' economic strategy has "Made in London" stamped all over it. What we want is the opportunity to create a sustainable economy for our people, not the residents of London. Local people and businesses must be at the heart of all our decision-making here. We must invest in improving people's lives to improve the economy and society, not just because it will deliver better services or is the right thing to do, but because it is also the smart thing to do to achieve and secure a future for all our people.

There is a fundamental difference between the vision that we have for our people and that which is painted by the Tories. Do we go forward to an economy that flourishes, with economic powers and in charge of our own resources and decision-making, or do we allow all our achievements to be rolled back by London cuts?

Our opponents are content to argue about how the economic and financial cake is divided. They are content to accept a future in which cuts and austerity stretch on for years to come, but we in Sinn Féin are not. Access to economic powers will allow us to tailor economic policies to the priorities of our people, extend competitive advantages and address the challenges and opportunities presented by the local and island economy. It will help us to build a more dynamic economy. It will allow expenditure and tax policy to work together in harmony and enable us to use welfare to protect the most vulnerable. It will also allow us to end the economic mismanagement of successive London Governments and give us the tools to build the economy that we all want — one that is compassionate, prosperous and progressive. It will give us the powers to flourish.

I want to make a point today. On Friday, other West Tyrone MLAs and I met a group of individuals from Glenside and Knockavoe schools. Members from every Assembly party were at the meeting and heard how schools face cuts to their day care and residential services in my area of Strabane and West Tyrone and, indeed, the wider north-west. They told us that they face the daily challenge of having to turn away patients with adult learning disabilities because of the financial pressures on their budgets.

Mr Wilson: Which you have added to.

Mr Hilditch (The Deputy Chairperson of the Audit Committee): I will be very brief. On behalf of the Audit Committee, I wish to confirm that the provision for the Northern Ireland Audit Office in the Main Estimates corresponds with the amount agreed by the Audit Committee and laid before the Assembly earlier this year. The Estimate, therefore, provides for a net resource requirement of £7·686 million, which is a 6·3% reduction from the agreed net resource requirement of £8.2 million for 2014-15. The reduction is consistent with the figures for the Audit Office in the Executive’s Budget for 2015-16. The Committee expressed its unease in agreeing the Estimate. It would much prefer to be in a position in which the reduction was significantly less. The Committee recognises, and the Assembly should be aware, that the reduction to the Audit Office’s budget has the potential to impact the services that it delivers.

The Committee does not want to see a situation in which the Audit Office lacks the necessary resources to provide effective backup to the Assembly in its task of holding Departments and others to account for the use of public money. That would not be in the public interest. However, the reality of the current financial position must not be overlooked. Cuts are being made across the public sector, and the Audit Office needs to accept its fair share of those.

The Committee wants the Audit Office to sustain, as far as possible, a similar service to that provided at present through continued efficiencies in its audit methodologies. However, given the risks that the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) has identified, it is vital that the Audit Office receives sufficient funding from the Executive’s transformation fund at the earliest opportunity to allow it to reduce its number of permanent staff by 10% and make the savings required by the Estimate.

It may be the case that there will not be a voluntary exit scheme or that it does not allow the Audit Office to make the savings necessary to live within the Estimate. If so, there will be a funding deficit and a gap between the work that the Committee wants the Audit Office to carry out and the resources that it has to make that happen. Understandably, the C&AG prioritises avoiding a situation in which the Audit Office has an Excess Vote, and the Committee respects that position. However, the Committee also recognises, particularly in light of the significant savings that the Audit Office identifies across the public sector every year, that our public finances would be worse off if the NIAO had to scale back its value for money work.

The Committee has been assured that the Executive respect the independence of the Audit Office. In order to give effect to that assurance, the Committee expects that, should a shortfall arise as a result of savings not being made from a voluntary exit scheme, the Finance Minister and the Executive will ensure that this is addressed during monitoring rounds. The funds required to do that would be relatively minimal but could have a significant impact.

The Audit Office has made significant savings in recent years, and it must continue to pursue efficiencies and cost reductions when possible, including through restructuring and reducing its permanent staff numbers. The Estimate that the Audit Committee has agreed reflects that. However, should it not prove possible to make sufficient savings from the voluntary exit scheme, it is crucial that the Audit Office receive the shortfall at the monitoring rounds. The Committee believes that we must not lose sight of what could be lost were the Audit Office not to be provided with adequate resources to serve the Assembly properly.

Mr Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. The debate will resume after Question Time.

The debate stood suspended.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): We will start with listed questions.

Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice): An outline business case for the redevelopment of Magilligan prison was approved by DFP on 9 January this year. I met the then Minister of Finance and Personnel on 28 April to discuss capital funding for delivery of the prison estate strategy. Until there is certainty on the capital available in the next spending review, it is not possible to give a commitment to deliver an eight-year construction programme. Securing the necessary capital will determine the timeline for the development of the new prison at Magilligan. My officials will complete the necessary bid to DFP to secure capital funding this summer.

Mr G Robinson: Does the Minister agree, given the continuing rise in the prisoner population at HMP Magilligan to near-maximum levels, that it is essential that redevelopment at the prison is concluded at the earliest possible date for prisoner and staff well-being?

Mr Ford: I certainly understand that it is important that we proceed with the programme for Magilligan. It is also important that we proceed with some of the capital work that is required at Maghaberry, including a facility for women, in the context of the difficult financial circumstances that the Executive, as a whole, face.

Mr Ramsey: Further to the Member's question, is there any intent to carry out a phased introduction of development, taking in the security and educational needs of prisoners, at Magilligan?

Mr Ford: Mr Ramsey makes a valid point on the scale of the redevelopment that is planned, which will be over a significant timescale; potentially up to eight years. The issues, frankly, are that some residential accommodation is probably the most urgent priority, given things like the lack of sanitation. It is possible to do some of the learning and skills operations in less than ideal buildings, but, frankly, we cannot continue to expect people to live in temporary buildings and Nissen huts.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I thank the Minister for his answers. The Department was to engage with stakeholders in the area. Will the Minister give us an update on progress there?

Mr Ford: Mr Ó hOisín is right: the Department was to engage with stakeholders, and it did so, including with local businesses and local councils in terms of providing opportunities for rehabilitation.

My understanding is that 30 prisoners from Foyleview, the semi-open unit, are out working regularly in the community with charities such as Barnardo's and the Riding for the Disabled Association, businesses, churches and with a variety of other bodies. There are placements with the health and social care trusts in Coleraine and Greysteel. There are also three current prisoner placements with Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, which builds on the work done originally with Limavady, Coleraine and Ballymoney councils, as they then were. All of these are good examples of work being done. One of the key factors in keeping the prison at Magilligan was to build on those local opportunities. I am pleased to see that we have made progress over the last couple of years.

Mr Swann: How much have the finance figures changed for the redevelopment since the initial costs were put in for the project?

Mr Ford: The answer to any capital programme in terms of things starting at an early phase and being considered over a period of years is that costs will increase. Part of the issue is because of the higher expectations of the facilities that would be provided. I do not have the figures immediately before me, but I will certainly write to the Member and give the current update on the figures. It is certainly a very significant programme, but it is required to ensure that Magilligan can fulfil its responsibility to rehabilitate prisoners and not merely incarcerate them.

Mr Allister: Within the priorities of the Department as to capital spend on prisons, will the Minister tell us where the Magilligan project ranks?

Mr Ford: The reality is that, as I have just said — and I will repeat for Mr Allister — there are requirements in all three prison units. There is a specific requirement for a proper facility for women, which will build on the work currently being done in Ash House in Hydebank Wood and the step-down facility being built elsewhere on the Hydebank Wood site.
There is a specific need for more residential accommodation and a plan for a significant cell block at Maghaberry. There is a need for a complete rehabilitation of Magilligan, which has, effectively, only one modern residential block with the rest of it still largely based on temporary buildings that were put up in the 1970s. All of those have to be considered together, and the Prison Service has a plan for phasing all three of those operations. However, what funding is available is clearly a significant issue for DFP and the Executive.

Mr Ford: I have had no meetings specifically on social investment bonds, but my officials continue to explore potential options in this area. DFP is working with Departments to explore opportunities to pilot alternative financing models for public service delivery, including social impact bonds and the development of suitable procurement models. Social impact bonds are indeed a means of attracting private funds to finance interventions designed to achieve social outcomes. As the expected output of a social impact bond is success in improving social outcomes, there would be a requirement to meet outcome payments to private-sector investors if outcomes are achieved. The next step for relevant organisations is to consider the outcomes and affordability. My officials will continue to liaise with officials in DFP and elsewhere to further explore opportunities in this area.

Mr Wilson: I welcome the positive response from the Minister. Finding ways of attracting private investment will be very important, especially at a time when public budgets are under pressure. One of the groups that would benefit if such impact bonds were introduced would be Sport Changes Life, which has had a dramatic impact on problems at interface areas. However, there is a requirement for gap funding for that group until such time as impact bonds are in place. Can the Minister give us an assurance that, given the good work and the response from the PSNI, he will seek in the monitoring round to ensure that sufficient funds are made available to keep those projects going in the interim?

Mr Ford: I appreciate entirely the point that Mr Wilson makes about Sport Changes Life. Of course, he should declare an interest, as it is based in his constituency. One of its key projects was done in my constituency and no doubt had a significant effect. The unfortunate reality is that, given all the other pressures on core services of the Department, I am not sure that it is possible to prioritise even such positive and worthwhile community projects as we look at the June monitoring round. However, I will certainly look to see how we relate not just to Sport Changes Life but to our other NGO partners.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. What initiatives is the Minister progressing towards the taking down of interface walls?

Mr Ford: I am really not sure how that sits in with social investment bonds, but I will happily explain to the House that work continues between officials in my Department and community groups in interface areas in Belfast, Derry and the Lurgan/Portadown area, all of which is seeking to build confidence in the communities on either side of interfaces to allow the removal or opening up of structures. We continue to make progress in that respect with things like the longer opening hours of gates and the fact that there are now seven fewer structures under the control of the Department of Justice than when justice was devolved.

Mr Ford: My Department is engaged in a wide range of work to reduce offending by working to rehabilitate people who have offended in order to build a safer society. In September last year, I approved the creation of the new reducing offending directorate to focus on ensuring effective collaboration and partnership-working across the justice system in order to reduce offending. Establishing effective ways in which we can support desistance is central to the work of the new directorate. I will shortly publish a strategy that outlines my Department’s commitment to promoting desistance from crime. Research indicates that there are several factors that can support the process of desistance, including securing and engaging in employment, maintaining relationships with family and community, and having hope and motivation to change.

In prison custody, the needs of the individual are balanced alongside their risks to create a dynamic personal development plan that focuses on improving their motivation and capacity to address their offending behaviour. Complementary to that ongoing work is the establishment of a partnership between the Prison Service, Belfast Met and North West Regional College, which will work to improve educational attainment and the employment prospects of prisoners.

The opening of the Burren House facility has also provided a low-security pre-release facility to test the capacity to work in the community and engage with employment or learning opportunities.

My Department is also thinking innovatively about the best ways to support offenders in gaining future employment. In recent weeks, we have seen the creation of an in-house cafe in Hydebank and the establishment of a social enterprise to employ young parents who have offended.

That is just a flavour of the significant work that my Department has been undertaking to reduce offending and to protect the public. However, I recognise that more can still be done, and my Department will continue to explore innovative and effective ways of reducing offending and making Northern Ireland safer.

Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Minister for his answer. He referred to the partnership between the Prison Service and Belfast Met and the North West Regional College: is that a new model for the delivery of learning and skills?

Mr Ford: Yes, it is a significant new model. In a sense, it is similar to the work that is being done around healthcare, where the expectation is being delivered that healthcare is better provided by the South Eastern Trust, a specialist health and social care provider, than by the Prison Service in-house. On exactly the same basis, the new contract, which will result in the creation of 33 new jobs to provide learning and skills opportunities with the two colleges in the three prisons, is a key way of building on the skills that exist in FE colleges and putting them to the best use of those who are in the care and custody of the Prison Service. A range of issues is being covered, including academic and vocational training, from numeracy and literacy essential skills through to degree-level work. Those are now being done in the prisons. Some of the practical issues are showing positive results, even at this early stage.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answers up to this point.

Has any valuation been done of the potential detrimental impact of the financial cutbacks in his Department on key stakeholder organisations such as NIACRO and on its programmes to help reduce offending?

Mr Ford: Mr McGlone highlights yet another effect of the difficult financial circumstances that we are in. There is no doubt that the cutbacks in grant funding have a detrimental effect on the services provided by some of our NGO partners, with NIACRO and Extern being two of the key ones in the rehabilitation of offenders. That comes after four years in which grants to the voluntary sector were, by and large, protected and in circumstances in which the most significant cuts from this point, as I frequently say, will be made to the core of the Department. Nonetheless, it has not been possible this year to continue to fund at the level that we were funding at last year. Of course, that was also complicated by the issue of European social funding, with NIACRO not being successful in its bid for its ongoing work.

Mr Campbell: Reducing offending and, indeed, reoffending can often be achieved by reviewing the severity of the sentences available to the judiciary. How regularly does the Minister do that?

Mr Ford: It is probably safe to say that, on virtually every occasion that a Minister produces the possibility of further offences being created, the appropriate sentences for the new offences are a consideration for my Department, in order to ensure that matters are kept in balance between offences of a broadly similar nature. There is ongoing work in the Department to keep an eye on that and to review those kinds of issues as they relate to other jurisdictions, particularly those within these islands, to ensure that there is broad comparability. I stress the words "broad comparability", not necessarily absolute equivalence.

Mr Lynch: Can the Minister give an update on what wider work has been done across government on reoffending? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Ford: Mr Lynch correctly highlights the point that reducing reoffending is not an issue that can be handled by my Department alone. As I pointed out, housing, health and social care and employment and training are all key issues. We seek to work in partnership with other Departments, as, for example, we have done with DEL and the two colleges over the issue of job skills training and routes into further employment. That requires a joined-up approach, and that is an issue on which the Department is seeking to work alongside other Departments that have direct responsibility for providing those services.


2.15 pm

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for that. Does he agree that it is difficult to get the level of offending now, due to the number of crimes going unreported because of the lack of bringing criminal cases to a conclusion?

Mr Ford: I am not sure that there is necessarily a great issue about reporting or, as Mr Elliott in essence suggested, of the reporting getting worse. It is no doubt the case that some criminal offences have historically gone significantly under-reported, domestic violence being the most obvious example. In recent years, hate crimes have clearly been under-reported, which is why we have been seeking to encourage increased reporting to ensure that they are addressed appropriately. However, as far as the generality of crimes is concerned, I am not sure that there is any greater under-reporting now than was the case a few years ago.

Mr Ford: It is important to offer appropriate interventions aimed at changing the behaviour of those committing domestic abuse. The integrated domestic abuse programme (IDAP) ensures a consistent approach in providing interventions for perpetrators of domestic violence. IDAP has been delivered by the Probation Board since 2009. The primary aims of the programme are to identify, challenge and change men’s abusive behaviour. IDAP is currently delivered at five sites: Armagh, Ballymena, Belfast, Derry and Omagh.

In providing the programme, the Probation Board works in close collaboration with the Police Service, social services and Women’s Aid to manage risk constructively. Importantly, the programme also offers safety and support services to victims through women's safety services provided by Women's Aid. I understand that a full evaluation of the IDAP programme by the Probation Board is under way, and I look forward to receiving the report.

I am aware that in England the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) has replaced IDAP with the new accredited programme, Building Better Relationships. To achieve accreditation, programmes must be evidence-based to ensure that they are targeting the right people, focusing on the right things and being delivered in a way that is most likely to reduce reoffending. All NOMS-accredited programmes are monitored to ensure programme integrity. I understand that the Probation Board is committed to delivering accredited programmes and, as a result, plans to follow the same approach.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Given that funding for the women's safety work for perpetrators, associated with IDAP, has been withdrawn without notice, how will the programme continue to be accredited? Do you, as Minister, recognise that that totally unsafe practice places victims of domestic violence at an increased risk?

Mr Ford: I appreciate the point that Mrs Cameron makes. Sadly, it seems to be the case that, for virtually every question I answer these days, I point out the realities of the financial circumstances that we live in. Despite those difficulties, I certainly believe that the Probation Board, which has the specific responsibility in this area, is doing its best in the financial circumstances to manage programmes such as IDAP and, indeed, to look at the potential transformation across. Whilst there are undoubtedly challenges because of the budget reductions, I believe that there is also a lot of very good work being done by professionals right across the justice system that we ought to support, while recognising the pressures that this sometimes places on individual members of staff.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Does he support minimum sentencing for those found guilty of domestic abuse-related crimes?

Mr Ford: I stick to the general position on virtually every offence. The reason why we have judges producing sentencing decisions after court hearings at whatever level of court they take place is so that all the relevant factors can be taken into account. On that basis, legislating for minimum sentences can be an incredibly blunt instrument that does not actually meet the needs of providing a safer society and protecting our people. On that basis, I am not in support of mandatory minimum sentences.

Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat. Minister, I appreciate the answers that you have given thus far. Are you satisfied that there are sufficient resources to deal with the programmes related to domestic violence?

Mr Ford: I do not have any suggestion that there are specific problems around the issue of resources for these particular programmes. What is absolutely clear is that there are resource issues for the justice system as a whole, and, in the Department, we seek to manage resources across different programmes within different agencies as best we can, given the problems that we are falling under. Frankly, as long as the House fails to take a realistic attitude to some of the difficult decisions that need to be taken over funding generally, Ministers will continue to answer questions about difficulties with particular programmes.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, do you share my concern that many women who have experienced domestic violence at the hands of former paramilitaries feel coerced into silence because they are being told, by other paramilitaries in their community, that if they report the crime to the police, it will have an impact on the early release that many of them are subject to? Therefore, Minister, will you undertake to write to the Secretary of State to clarify whether a conviction of domestic abuse would put their early release under threat?

Mr Ford: While Mrs Kelly makes some valid points about how issues are treated, and particularly about how we support victims of a variety of offences and those who would carry out activities that threaten people in general, we need to be slightly cautious about giving specific commitments on that. I am certainly happy to discuss the issue more widely with her, because there are issues that need to be discussed. They are, frankly, issues about the behaviour of paramilitaries, which have rather hit the headlines in recent weeks and months. There is a wider issue to address, and I am quite happy to have a discussion that is a bit longer than just giving a quick, snap answer now.

Mr Ford: I have regular discussions with the Chief Constable about a range of issues, including parading and protests and their implications. I met the Chief Constable and his senior colleagues last month and plan to review the situation with him again before the 12 July parades. I recognise and welcome the fact that the vast majority of parades in Northern Ireland pass off without any difficulty. I recognise the rights of those who seek to parade within the law, and of those who wish to protest peacefully, but there is no cause, dispute or disagreement that justifies the use of violence or public disorder. Those who are involved in such behaviour need to recognise and understand the potential consequences of their behaviour, including through the courts. I hope that wise heads will prevail this year, that true leadership will be shown, and that we all see a peaceful summer.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree with me that, in the absence of political agreement to establish mechanisms for the regulation of parades, all parties and political leaders should encourage people to abide by Parades Commission decisions whether they agree with them or not, thereby upholding the law?

Mr Ford: Yes, I certainly agree with my colleague. The reality is that the Parades Commission is the body established by Parliament to deal with issues of parades and protests. The parties in the Assembly have been unable to agree any appropriate replacement for the Parades Commission, and therefore the Parades Commission remains the body established by law to take the difficult decisions that we have been unable to take on, for institutions established by the Assembly. I therefore believe it is incumbent upon every MLA, as it is upon every citizen, to uphold the determinations of the Parades Commission; to accept them, whether or not they like them; and to live within them, to ensure that we can have a peaceful society and a peaceful summer marching season.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for looking forward to the summer with some optimism. I share that optimism, but will he look back and tell us the financial cost, to his Department and to the community, of policing the flags protests and the demonstration at Twaddell Avenue in north Belfast?

Mr Ford: I cannot give Mr Ó Muilleoir the full statistics for policing flags protests. It was certainly the case, not that long ago, that it was costing close to £1 million per month to police 10 metres at the top of Twaddell Avenue every evening. As there has been some reduction in resources, it is now running at something less than that: I believe it is in the region of a third of £1 million per month. All of that is money that is either being spent in additional overtime, which creates pressure on police officers and the police budget, or it is a cost caused by officers being redeployed from other duties, including the basic everyday crime-fighting and public reassurance that Members frequently tell me they wish to see in their constituencies. It may only be an opportunity cost, but it is a significant cost nonetheless.

Mr A Maginness: Will the Minister agree that the recent visit by Prince Charles to Saint Patrick's Church in Donegall Street was a recognition by Prince Charles that such an institution and such a building should be respected by all, including the loyal orders? Does he agree that people, not just those involved in parades but those who protest, should learn the lesson from the Prince that there should be mutual respect in our society?

Mr Ford: I certainly agree with the tenor of Mr Maginness's comments. I am not sure that it should require a visit by a member of the royal family for people in this society to respect places of worship, but the very fact that he visited it should surely encapsulate the historic nature of the church and the specific issues. I have attended services there on two or three occasions related to different aspects of the justice system, including, most recently, for Prisons Week last November, and I believe that any place of worship that is providing a service to the community, as well as pastoral care and concern for its parish or congregation, should be respected by everybody in this society. In particular, recent determinations of the Parades Commission regarding respect for that place of worship should be upheld.

Mr Cree: The Minister refers to the Ardoyne/Twaddell area. Does he not accept that it is very difficult to get a localised agreement in that area when the two residents' groups apparently will not meet in the same room?

Mr Ford: Regardless of whether there is a difficulty in getting agreement in the area, the question that I was asked was about upholding Parades Commission determinations, and that was the point that I made absolutely clear. Matters might be easier in the Ardoyne/Twaddell area if those in the different factions and elements on both sides of that dispute were to engage constructively, but the fundamental issue is that people should uphold the law, especially those who belong to organisations that claim to be committed to upholding the law and the constitutional arrangements.

Mr Ford: I met the Prison Officers' Association (POA) chair and a number of his colleagues in December 2014 to discuss a range of issues, including staffing levels and staff safety. Officials in the Prison Service continue to meet staff representatives through the formal Whitley structures and informally engage with trade unions and staff via a range of communication and engagement strategies. The Northern Ireland Prison Service keeps staffing levels under review, and a re-profiling exercise to look comprehensively at operational staffing levels across the service is nearing completion. As part of that exercise, there is an agreed process to consult with representatives of the POA prior to the introduction of the new profiles. There is a range of ways in which staff morale is kept under review, including mechanisms that facilitate staff engagement with senior management. That is done at a local level through full staff briefings and as part of the front-line forum meetings. The director general and the director of HR visit each prison specifically for front-line forum meetings, which bring together a cross section of staff. In addition, there are regular visits to the prisons by the leadership team.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for that. What practical measures has he put in place over the last year to resolve the low staffing complement and the high number of staff who are off on sick leave?

Mr Ford: There are two specific issues there. On the first question, to ensure that there are appropriate staffing ratios, a certain amount of overtime has been worked. There are also issues such as, at times, managing controlled lockdowns, which would not otherwise have been anticipated, to ensure safety for staff and prisoners. It is the job of managers in each part of the prison, in conjunction with their colleagues in HR, to ensure that the general issue of sickness absence is addressed. Indeed, as Members are well aware, that issue applies right across the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Question 1 has been withdrawn.


2.30 pm

T2. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of Justice for an update on the impact of the withdrawal of professional legal aid services on the justice system in Northern Ireland. (AQT 2642/11-15)

Mr Ford: The answer, at this stage, is that there has been a very limited impact from the withdrawal of legal aid services. The current period of withdrawal only commenced at the beginning of May, and therefore relatively few cases have been affected. I know of one case where an individual who was not represented in court succeeded in achieving bail on her own account by being invited by the judge hearing the application for bail to make her own representations, so it certainly did not have any effect on her. The number of cases being affected is relatively limited and will not kick on until the autumn term, when we will see. I hope that those who have currently said that they are withdrawing their services will reconsider the issue, especially when it comes at a time when the two professional bodies are judicially reviewing the decision that I took.

Mr Dunne: Has the Minister made any progress on the use of the proposed legal defender service for the management of legal cases in Northern Ireland?

Mr Ford: I am not sure what the proposed use of a legal defender service is. It is an issue that is potentially available in our legislative provision. I have sought all along to ensure that we maintain the existing system that allows individuals to choose their legal team from those who work in private practice, and that is the current position.

T3. Mr Anderson asked the Minister of Justice, given that it has recently come to his attention in answers to questions for written answer that over £10 million has been spent in repair and maintenance work at HMP Maghaberry in the last four years, to provide a clear explanation as to why this £10 million was needed. (AQT 2643/11-15)

Mr Ford: I was aware that Mr Anderson was aware of this, given the way he ran to the press to talk about what he described as a fairly excessive budget spend on the issue. Sadly, he did not check up on the facts in the first place. Compare, for example, the maintenance spend at Maghaberry with that in modern Scottish prisons: we find that, in 2014-15, Maghaberry spent £22·50 per square metre on general property maintenance, and the Scottish prison spent £28 per square metre. Indeed, since devolution, we have seen the overall cost of maintenance at Maghaberry reduced by over 38%. Perhaps Mr Anderson might like to ask his colleague the MP for Upper Bann to ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what went wrong before devolution.

Mr Anderson: OK, I am being asked questions now. Minister, there was £400,000 also spent, which was termed by the Department as "a small amount", and I do not think that that was a small amount by any stretch of the imagination. We need to know how and why it was spent. Minister, do you agree with me that those high costs highlight an even bigger problem in the service, which is that the prisons are seriously understaffed? If you do agree, many feel that the safety of prison officers has been compromised.

Mr Ford: Sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have just told Mr Anderson that costs are going down, and now he has asked me to agree with him that the high costs mean that there is a problem. I will accept his logic entirely and accept that the Prison Service is getting better.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call Mr William Irwin for a topical question.

Mr Irwin: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. Mr Irwin, will you resume your seat? Sorry, some Members to my right are insisting on speaking from a sedentary position. That means that I cannot hear the Member who is asking the question and, perhaps more importantly, that I cannot hear the Minister.

T4. Mr Irwin asked the Minister of Justice, whilst welcoming his recent announcement on increased support for victims of crime through the victims of crime fund, what portion of the fund will be allocated specifically to support and help elderly and vulnerable victims of crime, particularly those whose homes have been burgled. (AQT 2644/11-15)

Mr Ford: It is not possible to give the figures at that level of detail, given that the funding is delivered through some of our voluntary sector partners that deal with this issue, particularly Victim Support and the NSPCC. Therefore, I cannot say how we could possibly break that down. It would be a requirement to find it from the voluntary groups. I am not sure that it would be a terribly good use of their resources to chase up that level of detail rather than asking them to provide the services.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his response. Does the Minister accept that the elderly and vulnerable who have been victims of crime in their home feel very vulnerable and should be worthy of funding?

Mr Ford: I accept that a number of older people feel vulnerable, even though the statistic is that 2% of violent crime is directed against older people, who constitute 16% of the population, but there is no doubt that there are fears of issues like domestic burglary. That is why a lot of work has been done, principally under the auspices of policing and community safety partnerships (PCSPs) across Northern Ireland, to provide various security aids. I visited some of those schemes in a number of different areas. Good work is being done, and I am keen to encourage that, including using the proceeds of criminal assets to help to fight crime. Where appropriate, local organisations can assist in installing and providing the kind of equipment that can help to provide reassurance. People should be aware that the risk to older people in this society is very low, but there is no doubt that the fear of crime amongst older people remains at a fairly high level.

T5. Mr Douglas asked the Minister of Justice to outline the work the Youth Justice Agency has done to date to develop strategic partnerships with the Department of Education, particularly for under-18s, following his earlier mention of the Prison Service and the further education colleges. (AQT 2645/11-15)

Mr Ford: Mr Douglas raises an entirely valid point. Very similar work is going on at Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre. A few weeks ago, I met the Education Minister, John O'Dowd, at Woodlands, and we looked at how we can improve the quality of teaching provided there. There is no doubt that there are difficulties for the Youth Justice Agency in employing teachers, specifically the external services that they are unable to access because they are not teachers in a recognised institution. Officials from the two Departments have been looking at that. I do not yet have a conclusion, but I hope that we will see something fairly speedily.

Mr Douglas: I am sure that the Minister will agree that we are talking about some of the most vulnerable young people. Will he agree to keep the House informed of developments with Woodlands?

Mr Ford: I certainly will. Probably one of the best opportunities that we have is the use of the education other than at school scheme, which, potentially, would allow Woodlands to be recognised as an education provider. That would mean that, for example, staff there would have access to professional training courses, which they do not currently because they are not employed in an appropriate place, but I will keep the House in general and Mr Douglas in particular informed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Question 6 has been withdrawn.

T7. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of Justice whether he accepts that, through changes to neighbourhood policing in the ABC council area, policing in the Banbridge and Craigavon areas has been run down. (AQT 2647/11-15)

Mr Ford: I have two difficulties in responding to that, the first of which is the fundamental one: this is an issue for the Chief Constable, the Policing Board and the new PCSP that will shortly be established in the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon (ABC) council. That will be the appropriate place to discuss those issues rather than from my part as Minister, because I suspect that, if I engaged in too much of that conversation, I would be seen by the Chief Constable and others to be interfering in his responsibilities and those of the Policing Board, and I would not wish to come across members of the Policing Board, especially those in the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Perhaps the supplementary will be a bit more direct, Mr Gardiner.

Mr Gardiner: I hope so. The Minister needs to accept some accountability for this: he works with the PSNI daily. Does the Minister accept that neighbourhood policing connects the police with the population on the ground and that his decision has only put greater distance between the police officers and the community that they are here to serve?

Mr Ford: I am slightly perturbed by the phrase "his decision", because the Member appears to refer to a decision of mine. The only decision that I have taken about the provision of resources for neighbourhood policing in Banbridge, Craigavon or anywhere else in Northern Ireland has been to protect the budget of the Police Service as much as I can by making cuts of only 5·7% in the policing budget this year against the 22% cuts being made in the core Department of Justice. I have not taken any decision that has made those matters worse, but there is no doubt, as I said earlier and will doubtless say on future occasions, that the difficult financial situation makes it difficult for a range of public agencies to provide the service that the public are used to.

T8. Mr McAleer asked the Minister of Justice, in light of the tragic death of Tyrone teenager Ronan Hughes, to outline what measures his Department is taking to highlight the dangers faced by young people who use the Internet and social media sites. (AQT 2648/11-15)

Mr Ford: Given that tragic death, we should certainly be concerned about the issue. A lot of work has been done on Internet-related issues, although, because of the telecommunications aspect, they are principally reserved matters. Good work has been done involving the Police Service, and a lot of educational work is being done through a variety of organisations. I certainly trust that that tragic death will, as Ronan's parents have made it, become an issue that can be used to ensure that young people are made aware of the dangers of the Internet and are protected from those who would harm them on it.

Mr McAleer: Does the Minister share the view that fake accounts, which are believed to be operated by international criminal gangs, need to be tackled?

Mr Ford: Yes, they most certainly need to be tackled. When we are talking about gangs that are operating from other jurisdictions, as Mr McAleer highlighted, and targeting young people in these islands, it is very difficult to ensure that they are tackled easily. However, there are wider issues. Given the specialist nature of the matter, there is limited expertise in Northern Ireland. We at least now benefit from the input of the National Crime Agency in helping us to fight these criminals.

T9. Mr Cree asked the Minister of Justice for his assessment of Sir Keir Starmer’s report on the independent review of the prosecution of related sexual abuse and terrorism cases. (AQT 2649/11-15)

Mr Ford: It is not entirely for me to give an assessment of the Keir Starmer report; it is an issue for the Director of Public Prosecutions to follow through. I welcome the fact that he has accepted the report in full. I welcome the fact that he has apologised to the victims and I welcome that he is clearly putting actions in train in the Public Prosecution Service to make those necessary changes. I had a brief discussion with the DPP before the report was published and I had a subsequent discussion with him last week. I have no doubt that he is taking the report seriously and ensuring that the Public Prosecution Service learns from it.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for that. Bearing in mind the outcome of the report, does the Minister not think that the Director of Public Prosecutions should have resigned?

Mr Ford: No, I do not, for the very simple reason that he was not in post when those issues first came up and was not the person taking the decisions. Rather than calling for resignations, it is far more important to ensure that organisations learn lessons from reports such as this.

T10. Ms Ruane asked the Minister of Justice whether he believes that revelations from the ‘Panorama’ programme will affect confidence in policing, given that a further ‘Prime Time’ programme will air tonight. (AQT 2650/11-15)

Mr Ford: I would be in serious danger of pre-empting a debate that we are due to have in the House shortly if I went too far into that detail. There is no doubt that the revelations in 'Panorama', the subsequent local programme and, potentially, 'Prime Time' will cause people to have concerns about the behaviour of a number of organisations in the past. They should not have any effect on confidence in policing today, because we see a very different police service, which is fully accountable to the Policing Board, of which Ms Ruane is a member, has the highest human rights standards and is operating in a way and in a very different place from the circumstances that applied in the 1970s and 1980s.


2.45 pm

Social Development

Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development): My Department adheres to best practice in identifying and disposing of surplus assets. This best practice is set out in the Department of Finance and Personnel’s guidance, ‘Disposal of Surplus Public Property In Northern Ireland’. Last year, for example, my Department achieved £3·38 million of receipts from the sale of surplus assets, and has a target to achieve £5 million in the current financial year. I am pleased to report that we are well on course to achieving this target.

In the broader context, the Executive approved their asset management strategy in June 2013. One of the recommendations was to establish a central disposal unit in DFP properties division by April 2017 for the processing of all surplus assets from all Departments. This is being taken forward under the reform of property management programme, which is a DFP project supported by the Strategic Investment Board. My Department is fully engaged in that process.

The Housing Executive has advised that it has 21 sites on its land disposal programme 2015-16 for sale on the open market, valued at £1·9 million. Offers have been received on seven sites, totalling almost £0·57 million, but no sales have yet been completed. The value of the undeveloped land schedule surplus sites sold in 2014-15 was £160,450, and in 2013-14 it was £117,500. The Housing Executive has advised that the figures at two above do not include land transfers to housing associations, which are at nil consideration as they do not represent the total of all land disposals, for example open space lands and leases.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for the vast figures he outlined there. While I recognise that, on paper, his Department does well on capital receipts, does he accept that much of it comes from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive using public funds to pay his Department, so it is not true revenue in people's eyes? Given the extent of surplus lands owned by the Housing Executive, for instance, does the Minister believe that the target he referred to, and which he is well under way to reaching, is possibly too low?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. Obviously, in any of these, I would like to be in a position where we disposing of assets in a way that is generating more revenue for us, given the debate we are having in the House today on the Budget. However, I think that the targets have to be realistic, and, if you look at the past record on this, you will see that there has been an attempt to ensure that we did not overestimate what was achievable. As a result, the amount of money that has come in has been realistic. The Member made the point that this is all public money, and she is right. This is all under the responsibility and due diligence of the public purse, and I think that that is all the more reason why we have to ensure that, when we possibly can, we get the best possible outcome for the sales we enter into.

Mr Rogers: Minister, has your Department bought any new buildings either in the last financial year or this year?

Mr Storey: I have not got the detail on the particular issue that the Member raises. I will provide him with the specific detail.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. How many district councils have requested the transfer of DSD staff to support the transfer of regeneration powers and functions to local government?

Mr Storey: As the Member is aware, we are specifically talking about land purchase and land disposal, but I am quite happy to refer to the issue of staff. I have continued to have discussions with the councils about the potential success of the Regeneration Bill, which will come up later on in questions for oral answer.

If the Bill is passed and the transfer of functions takes place, it will be an issue for the individual councils. To date, a small number of councils have expressed an interest. We will continue to work with councils to maximise the benefit for them and agree the ultimate complement. I am quite happy to provide the Member with the actual numbers for all the councils, but they are relatively small.

Mr Storey: As you are aware, under the reform of local government my Department will confer powers and budgets to enable councils to decide how best to take forward regeneration and community development in their areas.

The financial allocation to local government from 1 April 2016 is £56·5 million. In order to determine the percentage of the £56·5 million that should be allocated to each council, the Department devised a funding allocation model. The allocation to each council is determined largely on the basis of income-deprived population settlement bands for tackling disadvantage; total population for physical development; income-deprived population of district for community development; and programme costs, excluding the Laganside, for salaries.

In terms of human resources, arrangements are in place to allow the new councils access, on a voluntary secondment basis, to staff from my Department with regeneration and community development expertise. My officials will continue to liaise with councils to determine their requirements, as I mentioned in answer to the previous question.

In terms of general assistance, my officials are working closely with councils to assist them in putting in place effective arrangements to meet the needs of their communities. Officials recently reviewed all existing projects for support in 2015-16, and the outcome of these reviews is being made available to councils to enable them to take informed decisions about the arrangements that they wish to put in place. Indeed, I recently met my officials in connection with the community planning element of all of this. I had some concerns about how we were implementing this and wanted to be absolutely sure that the functions for which my Department is responsible —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Minister's two minutes are up.

Mr Storey: — are being exercised with the councils.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for his detailed answer. I am glad to hear that the Department will continue to liaise with councils. Can he give us an overview of how the financial allocation to each council was determined?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary. This issue caused concern and raised questions. I endeavoured during conversations with councils to explain it to them as well as I could so that they are absolutely sure that we endeavoured to do everything possible to make a fair allocation across the 11 councils.

The development of the methodology for the distribution of funds for urban regeneration and community development was the outworking of the Executive's policy decision to transfer the functions in the first place. The model is designed to provide local government with objectively based allocations that take into account both population and deprivation. DSD can transfer to new councils only the relevant budgets and the physical assets associated with the delivery.

The budget being transferred is mostly what is being used for the current implementation of urban policies by the Department. As the Member knows, those policies currently applied only to settlements of 4,500 persons and above, the number recommended by the Northern Ireland Statistical Research Agency in its report in 2005. However, the Department recognised that the new councils may want to deliver regeneration programmes in smaller settlements, and for this reason the proposed distribution of funding is based on population figures down to settlements of 1,000 persons, resulting overall in councils with more rural populations receiving a greater share of the budget than would have been the case if we had decided to apply the 4,500 urban cut-off rigidly. This has resulted in a skewing of resources from largely urban councils to their more rural counterparts in places such as Fermanagh and the west. That was welcomed by those councils, which had felt that smaller councils were left with a lesser amount from the allocation process.

Mr Ramsey: Acknowledging the serious importance of urban regeneration, I ask the Minister whether he can assure the House that targeting social need will still be the priority in the allocation of that funding?

Mr Storey: Of course, if the Bill is successful and the powers are transferred in 2016, it will ultimately be for the councils to determine how they use that money. I have said that to councils that I have met. There is a concern now growing among some councils across Northern Ireland that members of those authorities may have different priorities and a different focus. What I am ensuring is that it is entirely an issue for the councils as to how they use that money, but I am also ensuring that they take into account the needs of the community that they serve. If we believe that all council is local, surely those at the grass roots of our political process should be best placed to be able to identify the needs in their locality.

The other element is that councils now have a responsibility for community planning, so there has to be a joined-up approach. It is something that I have a concern about and something that I want to ensure is done in a way that maximises the best possible outcome for the councils, but they, as the lead authority when they have the power and the resource, will have to determine, in conjunction with their elected representatives and the information and guidance that is issued by my Department and that comes out of the community planning process, that they are doing it in a way that is best tailored to meet the needs of their community.

Mr Beggs: Will the Minister confirm that it would be inequitable if he were to restrict funding to, say, groups larger than 4,000? In fact, it was for equality reasons that smaller pockets of deprivation were not excluded in the past. Will he confirm that they will continue to be assisted in the future?

Mr Storey: The aim is to ensure that this is equitable, as far as we can make it so, within the resources that are available. Obviously, there was an issue in the past, where there was a cut-off point of 4,500. There was a view that funding should be for smaller conurbations. Councils have made representations — I have had discussions now with most of them. I think that there are two councils that I still have to meet, but there was certainly a clear indication from local authorities that they wanted to be in a position in which they were able to be of help and assistance where there was a smaller number of persons within their particular community. However, given the amount of money that we are talking about here, it is a limited resource, and there are many needs, whether they are in conurbations of 1,000 persons or beyond 4,500. The council will have to ensure that it does this in the best way possible, and in a way that does not create the situation that the Member outlined.

Mr Allister: On the public realm scheme's contribution to urban regeneration, can the Minister respond to the concerns of traders in Church Street in Ballymena that, at the onset of the scheme a couple of weeks ago, the pavements were dug up, after which everything was at a standstill for days on end with no further work done, much in contradiction of the assurances given to the traders in advance of the work starting? Can the Minister seek to address and tighten up that situation?

Mr Storey: Although the Member's question is slightly beyond the remit of the original question, I am quite happy to answer it.

The money that is being invested in Ballymena is somewhere in the region of £4·6 million, which is very welcome by the traders and the town. I am sure that the Member, like me, would have been the first to complain if we did not have an investment in Ballymena, which is a premier town in Northern Ireland for retail and many of the other shopping experiences that people enjoy when they go there.

On the specifics, I have met individual traders, and I am going back again this week to meet the council on the issue, because it will have responsibility for the management of the works. The work on the Ballymena public realm scheme actually commenced on the ground on 18 May. It is anticipated to last some 80 weeks and to be completed by November 2016. I take on board the concerns that have been raised and continue to be raised. I am asking the council and the contractor to ensure that everything is done to minimise the disruption, because an 80-week project of this magnitude will undoubtedly have particular challenges. It is important that we work with the traders. I have received correspondence from my colleague the MP for the area on compensation for traders. Other requests have come in on specifics, and we are working our way through those so that we do all that we can.
The other point is that we have learned from other public realm schemes that have been carried out in this way so that we can avoid some of their issues. I trust that that will be the case with Ballymena.


3.00 pm

Mr Storey: In the four-year period just ended, my Department funded registered housing associations to provide over 6,100 new high-quality, energy-efficient social homes in areas of need across Northern Ireland. The Programme for Government target set by the Northern Ireland Executive was to deliver 6,000 houses, so the overachievement was a good result for those on the housing waiting list. Plans are to deliver at least 1,500 more new homes in the current year.

At this point, I acknowledge the contribution made by the housing association sector, not least the £315 million of private finance that was levered in to part fund the building programme. That makes a tremendous addition to the work that we can do every year to help those in housing need. Housing associations build some of the very best housing to be found in Northern Ireland. They provide not only housing for families but supported housing for some of our most vulnerable citizens. We can be rightly proud that our social housing standards are very much the envy of other jurisdictions.

In fact, if we look at output in the rest of the UK, we see that we are doing much better. Recent figures show that in England one new social house was being provided for every 60 applicants on the waiting list. The figures for Scotland and Wales were better, but the figure for Northern Ireland was best, with one social house being built for every 30 or so applicants. In relative terms, therefore, we are outperforming the rest of the United Kingdom on this issue.

Lord Morrow: I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. I am sure that he, like everyone else here, recognises that there is a considerable waiting list. Can the Minister tell us whether he and his Department are on target with all its housing provision, or is there a miss or a lack here?

Mr Storey: In relation to whether the targets for the delivery of social and affordable housing have been met, I think the answer is yes. A total of 10,066 homes have been delivered in Northern Ireland under the current Programme for Government. As I said, 6,101 of those were social homes and 3,965 were affordable homes. Believe it or not, that is over 2,000 more homes than were promised. It is not often that Ministers stand in the House and are able to say that something has exceeded a Programme for Government target. The individual targets for all four years were exceeded each year, with 1,410 homes delivered in 2011-12; 1,379 delivered in 2012-13; almost 1,300 delivered in 2013-14; and 2,013 delivered in 2014-15. That all goes well for how we plan in the future. It is a good news story, particularly for those who are now in receipt of good homes. I look forward to ensuring that we continue to do the same in the future.

Mrs D Kelly: I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say. There is no doubt that there have been some achievements. Nonetheless, Minister, would you not acknowledge that we are in a housing crisis and have been for some time? To compare us with GB is to compare one crisis with another. Did you give further thought in your review of the Housing Executive to whether it would be able to put in a submission to the European Investment Bank to build houses again?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her question and for the work she does on the issue on the Committee for Social Development. Obviously, she has a particular interest in this.

I would like to see the Housing Executive again at the forefront of building and providing homes. However, over the last number of years, we have seen the challenges that have been created. Since I have been in post, I have seen the variety of housing provision. It cannot be one-size-fits-all, so it has to be a multiplicity of providers. That will come from the Housing Executive being a good landlord and ensuring that its properties are kept up to the standard that they should be. We have fallen behind on that. Very soon, I will announce the outcome of the Savills stock condition survey, which will clearly indicate the huge investment needed. We have seen progress made with housing associations. I am having ongoing discussions with them on how we can improve our relationships, and they are key. There are also issues that Members have raised in the House about tower blocks and the way in which the Housing Executive needs to address those. All those matters are under consideration in a variety of ways. However, the focus must remain for me, as the Minister, and the Department to continue to work with all providers to get the best possible outcome and delivery for the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr McGimpsey: I agree with the Minister that we provide good public housing. The problem, of course, is that there is simply not enough of it. What effect will the projected 2,000 properties for this year being reduced to 1,500 — a 25% reduction — have on the waiting list, particularly for the provision of vital family-sized housing?

Mr Storey: When you have to cut your cloth according to the amount of money you have, it will obviously have an impact. I would like to be exceeding the plan and doing more than we intended. Much has been achieved, and no doubt much more needs to be done, but, in the current circumstances of a reduced overall amount of money, we have to do the best we can with the money that is available. However, there is no doubt that that has an impact on communities and locations where there is a greater need or demand. That is the challenge for my Department and everybody, which follows on from my comments to the previous Member about all those involved in the provision of housing in Northern Ireland.

I attended a meeting recently with the CBI and had a useful exchange with a variety of providers from co-ownership providers to bankers. It was an open discussion around how we could continue to provide good homes in Northern Ireland. Let us not leave out the private sector, which continues to build houses and is showing some recovery in Northern Ireland. It has to be an all-round provision, not focusing solely on one element. However, there is no doubt that challenges remain for us in the budget.

Ms Lo: Of the social homes built in the last few years, how many were under the shared housing scheme?

Mr Storey: I do not have the exact figures to give the Member, so I am happy to come back and give her a detailed breakdown.

Mr Storey: My Department has no authority to control the level of service charges that are set by housing associations. However, the Department reviews service charges through the inspection regime and quarterly financial monitoring. The inspection reviews the appropriateness of the arrangements that housing associations have in place to determine the level of service charges and the processes for collecting those costs. The monitoring team receives and reviews quarterly financial information relating to service charge income and costs.

My Department is developing comprehensive proposals for a social housing rent policy. The proposals will also look at the fairness, consistency and transparency of service charges.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. I welcome the report and the process that he has spoken about bringing forward. Is a timeline available for that? When could tenants expect that to kick into action?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for the supplementary question. It is my intention to put this out for consultation over the summer. That always raises the question of whether it is being done over the summer because people are away on holidays. However, I assure the Member and the House that the issue will generate considerable debate. It has already done so. Housing associations have made representations to me and the Department on the issue of a rent policy, and I think that they even raised that issue when they were with the Committee recently. I am also aware of concerns that have been raised across the piece about the particular way that we ensure that we do not have excessive rents but, equally, that people can live in homes in which they get value for money for the rent that they are charged. That goes right across the piece, whether it is Housing Executive properties or those in the control of housing associations.

I trust that I have taken a pragmatic view of the issue. I do not want to scare the horses or create alarm. I want to have an informed discussion about how we get the best possible outcome that secures tenure for people in their homes and gives them the assurance that they are not being overcharged for services that are not being provided.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answers. Following on from what he said, does he recognise the very real concerns among housing association tenants about the management of service charges and what they really relate to?

Mr Storey: Yes, in answer to the question that the Minister — the Member — asked. That might be a prophecy: he may be a Minister one of these days.

You are not long in post in any of the positions in the House before you realise the particular issues that are prevalent and the particular concerns that various groups and interests raise. One of those concerns is rent. We also get some very good feedback and some positive messages from a variety of sources in the Housing Executive and housing association provisions and from those who are involved in co-ownership.

It goes back to the point that I made earlier. We have a patchwork quilt of provision and a variety of providers. I want to ensure that, in whatever sector the homes are provided, they are provided in a way that is fair and equitable and gives quality of provision to those who live in them.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. I am glad that he has an interest in what goes on in our Maiden City. The Lagan Weir pedestrian and cycle bridge is on programme to be opened to the public before the Tall Ships event, which is due to take place in July.

Mr Girvan: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he outline what benefits the Lagan footbridge and cycle path will bring to Belfast city centre?


3.15 pm

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. My colleague has reminded me that Belfast is the capital city; I may have been referring to another city in the west, which is the Maiden City. The new bridge will provide improved connections across the River Lagan between Belfast city centre and the Titanic Quarter. The bridge will also help to promote the Queen's Quay area to potential developers. In only the second event that I attended after taking up office, I went to see the commencement of the works. At that stage, people were raising concerns as to why there was a huge investment of £5·5 million. It is a good investment that will provide tremendous connectivity between the Titanic Quarter and Queen's Quay —

Mr Humphrey: And north Belfast.

Mr Storey: — the Member mentions north Belfast — and the rest of our city. There is already anticipation in the lead-up to the bridge being handed over. I look forward to being in a position by the end of this month to officially open the bridge. It will be another added asset to this great city and to the River Lagan, which it crosses.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to topical questions.

T1. Mr McKay asked the Minister for Social Development what work his Department is doing in conjunction with the community, voluntary and charity sectors to address issues presented by pavement furniture blocking pedestrian access. (AQT 2661/11-15)

Mr Storey: This issue is always raised in regard to public realm schemes. When public realm schemes are taken on board, as far as I am concerned and, I trust, for those who are involved in the delivery of these schemes, every concern is heeded, whether in relation to those who have particular physical disabilities or some other disability. In particular, we have had issues in the past with guide dogs for the blind. All those issues are taken on board in a very practical way. In fact, just a few days ago, I was made aware of a particular scheme that had not been followed in a way that gave us a good outcome. I have asked for that particular issue to be looked at again.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he and his Department fully support recommendations made by disability groups in relation to the development of the regulation of pavement cafes?

Mr Storey: Yes. Again, we are aware of those particular recommendations. They are being considered, and I trust that we will be able to give a positive response in a way that is equitable and tries to strike a balance between the needs of the traders, who have expressed their particular concerns, and the needs of pedestrians.

T2. Mr McElduff asked the Minister for Social Development whether he appreciates that, although independent advice organisations are facing much greater demand for their services at this time than ever before, very many of them have seen their funding remain static for the past 10 years or more. (AQT 2662/11-15)

Mr Storey: Yes. Obviously, I value very much the work that the independent advice sector does for us. The Member will be well aware of the challenges that we have in the House in relation to the Budget and in making difficult decisions. In fact, because of requests from his party, we have had to take some money from the block grant and divert it into other needs that he and his colleagues have seen as being a priority, particularly in relation to welfare. We did that in the comprehensive agreement but, unfortunately, the Member and his party are stalling the implementation of that agreement that we made.

I continue to support the independent advice sector and, through the various funding arrangements that we have, I give them the support and the financial assistance that they need so that they can continue to deliver the service in the expert way that they have done to date.

Mr McElduff: I will zone in on the current needs of Omagh Independent Advice Services. Will the Minister ensure that senior officials from his Department work closely and directly with Omagh Independent Advice Services to fix a hole in its finances? I understand that the deficit runs to £12,000 for the current year.

Mr Storey: This is the benefit of the House, because all politics is local. I appreciate the fact that the Member has a particular issue in relation to the matter that he raised. I am quite happy, now that the Member has given the details of the matter to the House, for my officials to look at the particular need and see what help can be given to the service in Omagh that is currently under stress.

T3. Mr McCallister asked the Minister for Social Development at what point the ongoing welfare reform and Budget issues will cause his Department to hit the problems of being unable to pay people benefits and having to replace outdated IT equipment to avoid running two different systems. (AQT 2663/11-15)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member. Obviously, this issue is part of the problems that we currently face. In fact, correspondence some time ago from the previous Chief Secretary and from the previous Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg, indicated to the Executive that they needed to make decisions on how they wanted to provide social security when DWP started to withdraw from its IT contracts in mid-2016.

That is one element of the issue. The other is that, if we cannot find an agreed solution to the Budget and were to find ourselves in the position that the finances of the House were under the control of the permanent secretary at the Finance Department, it would certainly create a huge challenge for us. By August of this year, which is not that many weeks away, we would be in a very difficult and challenging position that could result in a situation in which some element of the annually managed expenditure (AME) delivered on the ground, specifically in the form of certain benefits, could be put in jeopardy, and some benefits might not be paid.

Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. On that point, if some benefits will not be paid, would the Minister care to elaborate on how exactly the ongoing fight on welfare and the Budget, if it gets to the situation that he outlined, will help the vulnerable?

Mr Storey: The Member is absolutely right: it does not help. By constantly delaying it, we are ratcheting up problems that affect everybody in Northern Ireland. At Stormont House, we endeavoured in good faith to ensure that we had a comprehensive agreement, to which five parties made a contribution and signed up. We then began the process of implementing it.

Despite all the smokescreens and diversions over the last number of weeks, and despite all the misinformation about papers not being given and people acting in bad faith, I cannot understand why, when we had an agreement at the beginning of this year that was sold by the parties opposite and advocated as being a new dawn and a new day — it was a process that would help the vulnerable and one whereby we were getting to terms with dealing with issues — all of a sudden, on that fateful weekend in March, something dramatically changed. We know, of course, what it was. It was not the focus on the people of Northern Ireland. A party was looking two ways, and its focus was on an election that it hopes will come in the Irish Republic.

My call and challenge to the party opposite and to the SDLP, which, unfortunately, along with the single Green Party Member, became a conspirator on this issue, when it signed the petition of concern, is this: let us implement the agreement that we made; let us ensure that we do not create any more vulnerable people; and let us deal with the issues that will give to the people of Northern Ireland clarity and certainty in a way that does not create more vulnerability for those saying that they have lost all confidence in the House.

T4. Mr Ó Muilleoir asked the Minister for Social Development to return to thinking about the Lagan, the inner city and the Markets area and give an update on the planned environmental improvement scheme for the Markets, and, without giving away his supplementary, to consider the fact that there has been more planning than action. (AQT 2664/11-15)

Mr Storey: I do not have specific details about that scheme with me, but I am quite happy to give the Member an update on it. In that scheme, as in others, I want to ensure that we continue to make progress. However, progress can be made only when all the agencies concerned work together and when we have the overall budget that will be made available to deliver these schemes.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat. Thank you, Minister. The problem is that phases 3 and 4 of the environmental improvement scheme never happened. The Minister has been in Sandy Row, which is almost a partner area of the Markets in this development. We invited you in before Christmas. There was a crisis in government, then there was another crisis. We will probably not make it before the summer, but I hope, Minister, that you will take up the invite to visit the Markets to see the great work that is being done there in partnership with surrounding communities. The environmental improvement scheme will be a key part of that.

Mr Storey: The Member rightly refers to phases 3 and 4. It is certainly a challenge to ensure delivery. The crises that he referred to were not of my making and are no reflection on my goodwill in trying to see delivery of a project that would undoubtedly have a huge impact on the well-being and quality of life of people in the Markets area.

Whether it is this scheme or others — my Department and I have been involved with a myriad and multiplicity of schemes over the last number of months and years — we need to ensure that we do not lose the focus of the importance of these projects for the communities that want them delivered. Other Members have the very cavalier attitude that we should not spend this amount of money and should spend it on other things. However, we sometimes need to take cognisance of the communities that we are delivering these projects in, listen to their voices and concerns, and try as much as we possibly can to deliver for them.

T5. Mr Moutray asked the Minister for Social Development how much money the benefits uptake programme has generated in the past year. (AQT 2665/11-15)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question on benefits uptake. Of all the benefits — excuse the pun — benefits uptake has been one of the most successful schemes that we have engaged in. I continue to be committed to promoting the uptake of benefits in an effort to tackle poverty and improve the lives of the most vulnerable. In 2013-14, over 4,000 people, many from our older generation, gained some £14·2 million in new and additional benefits. In fact, since 2005, benefit uptake work has generated over £81 million in additional income for people in Northern Ireland.

Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for that very positive answer. What plans are in place to improve further the uptake of benefits in this financial year?

Mr Storey: The Department is entering into the final year of Maximising Incomes and Outcomes, which is a three-year strategy to improve the uptake of benefits. An action plan for 2015-16 is in place. It continues to prioritise and invest resources in programmes and activities aimed at encouraging the uptake of benefit services and supports. Officials are due to present the action plan to the Social Development Committee on 18 June. That will give the Committee and Members of the House an insight into how we intend to address this issue over the next three years.


3.30 pm

May I say to the Member, and to Members across the House, that they should continue to encourage people in their constituencies to ensure that they have made the call so that they can see what may be available to them? Given the fact that we are talking about a considerable amount of money over a number of years, I think it is well worth making the effort to make that call, because it will, undoubtedly, bring a reward.

T6. Mr Elliott asked the Minister for Social Development how many papers he and his Department have produced on the welfare mitigation scheme since the Stormont House Agreement proposals were made, given that a number of other papers have been issued. (AQT 2666/11-15)

Mr Storey: The Department has produced five papers since the Stormont House Agreement.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I am afraid that time has beaten us. Members, we can return to the debate on the Supply resolutions.

Executive Committee Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly approves that resources, not exceeding £7,444,446.68 be authorised for use by the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, for the year ending 31 March 2014, as summarised for each Department in Part II of the 2013-14 Statement of Excesses that was laid before the Assembly on 8 June 2015. — [Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £8,336,067,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 and that resources, not exceeding £9,004,299,000, be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 3(b) and 3(a) of table 1·3 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Estimates 2015-16 that was laid before the Assembly on 8 June 2015. — [Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:

In the second motion leave out all after "exceeding" and insert:

"£7,732,067,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 and that resources, not exceeding £8,400,299,000, be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2016 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 3(b) and 3(a) of table 1·3 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Estimates 2015-16 that was laid before the Assembly on 8 June 2015, subject to a proportionate reduction for each Department, with the exception of the Department of Health Social Services and Public Safety, and each other public body referred to in columns 3(b) and 3(a) of table 1·3 of the aforesaid Estimates, so as to reflect the £604,000,000 shortfall resulting from the failure to implement the Stormont House Agreement." — [Mr Allister.]

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will give our friends time to move across.

I want to return to some of the topics that we tackled earlier today. In brief, and in summary, our belief is that we need to have a more robust attitude and challenge to the cuts juggernaut that is coming at us from London. It disappoints those of us on this side of the Chamber that our colleagues on the other side of the Chamber are willing to accept, willy-nilly, the nature and severity of those cuts. They take it as read that there should be no resistance, protest, demand to, or explanation from, the British that it is the wrong way forward, that it will not benefit anyone in this community and that it will not help our economy. We are divided on the approach; I understand that. Despite that, the evidence shows that the ideology of austerity has not been the springboard for the improvement of our economy, and will not be in the time ahead.

The amount of money that has been taken from our block grant has been well rehearsed in the Chamber. At times, some of our colleagues across the Chamber are more critical of the British Government with regard to the £1·5 billion that has been taken out of our Budget since 2011. They have the attitude that it is done and that there is no merit in saying to the British that it needs to be reversed. That is not my attitude. It is my view that the £1·5 billion that has been taken out is equivalent to 0·002% of the British Budget, yet, of course, it has been a hammer blow to our budgets and has meant real hardship for ordinary people. If we want to continue the progress that we have made in the last two decades, we need to have that grant restored. We need to be able to provide the services that our people are crying out for.

Of course, we are at this crisis point because our friends in London are back in power. I was going to refer to the Lib Dem/Conservative coalition, but the Conservatives are back, on their own, in power, and have wasted no time in telling the public and us that further cuts will be our lot in the time ahead. We were fresh out of the election when we were told that cuts in the region of £30 million would come immediately, in-year. We also know that the £25 billion reduction that is being talked about will mean swingeing cuts to our budgets.

At some point, all of this will become unsustainable. Is it our role as politicians, civic leaders — people who have a stake in this land, in this community, and who are fighting for our neighbours, families and society — to go back to our community, time out of number, especially in the years ahead, and say that we have less money, that we will have to continue to cut back, and that we will have to continue to make a detrimental impact on public services because that is what the British are insisting on? If that is our entire role in politics, it places a huge question mark over why we should continue in that matter. I am not here to carry water for English Ministers. I believe that, if we are masters of our own destiny and have the ability to raise from our own people the resources needed to pay for public services, we should be allowed to do that. However, the British want it both ways. They do not want to allow us that right, except in very restrained circumstances, where they say that we can have corporation tax powers, but, at the same time, the income tax, the PAYE revenue, raised through the extra jobs, would go to London only. And so it is with all the other fiscal levers.

In the time ahead, our objective must be to have a response from the entire community right across the board. Last week, as part of a Sinn Féin delegation, I met the Institute of Directors (IOD) and the CBI. It heartened me to find that their attitude is not that of the Tory Government; they do not agree with the Tory Government when they say, "It is our way or the highway.". They believe that there is a strong and special case to be made for our community as to why we cannot continue to suffer this blizzard of cutbacks. I am particularly heartened by the CBI's insistence that, to inflict further cuts on this society will make it even more difficult for us to do the essential things if we are to build the economy, not least provide jobs to our young people and make sure that our universities have the ability to turn out the many talented and qualified graduates that industry calls for.

My call today is that, as we look to the future, we have a vision for a society that is fair and prosperous. I do not believe that that is impossible. I believe that we are united, right across the Chamber, in the belief that a fair and prosperous economy is good for everyone. That is one of the visions that unites us.

At this stage, we are divided because some of us are willing to accept the agenda from London and some of us are not. It is my feeling that continuing to slash public services and to accept, without protest, the continued cuts to our Budget is not the way forward. We will not be thanked for that, either by the electorate or the community.

I hope that, in the time ahead, as negotiations continue with the Treasury on the way forward and the austerity ideologues sit down and take out their pencil and decide what budgets to cut, our representatives on the Executive will bring to them a united voice and insist that we need the resources to build this society and to provide first-class public services to our people. We will continue to work in the interests of ordinary people to create jobs for all and to build the economy. It is my hope that, as we emerge from discussions in this Chamber and outside it, we can get a united approach from us all around the Chamber to the British Government in the time ahead.

I am someone who likes to say yes, but, if we are to say no to anything, now is the time to say no to the austerity ideologues and English Ministers and say that we will not accept their mission or plan to make our institutions untenable and unsustainable. Be sure of this: if they continue to cut as they plan — taking another £800 million out of our Budgets between now and 2018 — they will have dealt a hammer blow and a death knell to the institutions that we are all fighting to keep up and sustain in this part of the world.

Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment on the Main Estimates. The former Minister briefed the Committee on 10 February 2015 on the draft Budget proposals.

DETI’s baseline position consisted of an overall 15·1% reduction distributed pro rata across the Department and its arm's-length bodies. The Committee noted that the assessment provided little indication of any prioritisation of expenditure in DETI. The Committee would like to have seen further analysis to ensure that the impact of reductions is lessened on areas of strategic priority for the Executive. Unfortunately, that does not seem to have occurred.

More than 90% of Invest NI's budget for 2015-16 was already committed when the Committee was briefed in February. DETI officials informed the Committee that that meant that Invest NI would be unable to support its current level of activity, resulting in fewer jobs being promoted, and presumably leading to fewer jobs being created. On a future Programme for Government (PFG) and economic strategy, officials stated that Invest NI would have to scale back its targets. That is of considerable concern to the Committee, especially at a time when Invest NI is performing very well against most of its PFG targets. The growth of Northern Ireland's export base is the one key area in which Invest NI has not met its targets, yet there seems to be no provision in the Budget to address it. Northern Ireland has a small internal market; therefore, the growth in exports is essential to economic growth.

Assurance provided previously that no worthwhile inward investment for job creation will be rejected owing to budgetary constraints remains in place. The Committee sought and received an assurance from the former Minister of Finance and Personnel that that remains the case. However, reduced activity by Invest NI will undoubtedly result in fewer opportunities being identified, leading to fewer worthwhile proposals for inward investment and, as such, fewer jobs being created. At a time when we are looking to reduce corporation tax and promote the North as a place to do business, that has to be a concern for the Executive.

DETI officials briefed the Committee on the June monitoring round on 2 June 2015. The Department outlined key monitoring round bids of £4 million to Invest NI for the Bombardier nacelles project and £1 million to Tourism NI for feasibility studies around maximising current tourism initiatives. The economy is the Executive’s number one priority, and the Committee has always believed that it is important that Invest NI be resourced to meet current commitments, and to deliver for future opportunities that present themselves. The Bombardier nacelles project is a high-value research and development project. That DETI's GB counterparts are also topping up the £110 million project shows its significance, with an estimated 115 R&D jobs, 168 production jobs and the potential for subsequent work to emanate from the project.

Invest NI bid for £4·3 million in capital for Seagate Technology (Ireland) for R&D assistance into leading-edge technology. That will be an important project for the site in Derry, with the company itself spending £34·7 million on it.

The Committee welcomes the initiatives in the June monitoring round that aim to maximise on money already spent by the Department. A bid of £1 million by Tourism NI for feasibility studies includes exploring the potential for future spin-offs from the high-profile 'Game of Thrones' and further footfall opportunities for the Gobbins path. The Committee looks forward to reviewing the results of the feasibility studies and any future work on the projects. It will continue to scrutinise the benefits, and whether they outweigh any spending.

There is slippage on the Waterfront convention centre, the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland and the SS Nomadic. The £1 million for that will be met by reallocation of funds. The Committee recognises the importance of those projects, not least the benefits of the Waterfront convention centre to visitor numbers and to putting Belfast on the map as a major conference destination.

The Committee is awaiting further information from the Department on the voluntary exit scheme for the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI). DETI core has registered £2·4 million and HSENI £0·5 million of requirements for the voluntary exit scheme. Those were considered in the first tranche of bids under the scheme. The Health and Safety Executive plays an extremely important role in ensuring and promoting health and safety in the workplace, not least with its recent advertising campaign for farm safety, which resonates very sadly and soundly with us all.

The Committee asked what impact the voluntary exit scheme will have on the most vital HSENI services — including, of course, farm safety — considering that, just over 18 months ago, the Health and Safety Executive appointed eight trainee inspectors to address a shortage in staff and bring the organisation up to full complement. The Committee has noted a reduction of half a million pounds owing to construction work not commencing on the gas extension project to the west and north-west until later in 2015. Again, that is an important construction project that will bring jobs in itself but also provide long-term economic benefits.

I will now speak for a moment in my capacity as a member of the SDLP. I wish to discuss the processes around the Northern Ireland Executive Budget. The most recent Assembly Budget Bill debate was only four months ago. I will reiterate a point that my SDLP colleagues have made many times.

An annual budgetary process used in other jurisdictions causes participation and robust process and brings ideas to the forefront. We in the Northern Ireland Assembly should and could have a significant budgetary process to discuss, but this is simply a financial management process — or mismanagement, as some might argue. There are so many things that we could be discussing, as well as legislation and allocation of funds that we could be bringing forward.


3.45 pm

I have been out and about quite a bit in the last while, and a key issue that has been raised with me by members of the community, particularly young families, is childcare. I know that my colleague Seán Rogers has raised that on a number of occasions. The costs of childcare are exorbitant, and it is essential that I put this on the record. Aviva did a survey at the tail end of last year into childcare costs for parents of children up to five years of age. Many of them are working for less than £100 a month after childcare costs are paid. That is the situation that many people are facing. Indeed, many of them, mostly but not exclusively young mums, are having to face choices about whether they should or should not work. Those exorbitant costs are providing a barrier to employment, especially for young mums, and that deprives the labour market of key and very well-educated people with skills, who are being forced because of those pressures and the costs of childcare to remove themselves from the labour market. Childcare is also ultimately a key element in the development of the academic and intellectual skills of the child. We need to identify early on whether there are any shortcomings or problems that might need to be addressed in the development of the child. It has huge, huge social and economic value.

We have had a debate in the last while on welfare reform. I think that it is time we moved the focus. It needs to be on people who face difficulty. We need to move the focus of our debate from welfare reform to welfare and work reform, especially when those high childcare costs mean that one in five parents are considering either reducing their hours or giving up work altogether, thereby depriving the labour market of key people at a time when we are talking about investing in skills for our young people and reskilling people of a more advanced age. As a consequence of lack of proper investment in childcare, that key element of the skills sector is being withdrawn from the labour market. We talked about corporation tax. I think that a big attraction for any FDI coming here — yes, reduced taxation levels helps — is to come to a society that is caring and supportive towards its employees.

As my colleague Fearghal McKinney mentioned, we in the SDLP welcome the Supply resolution for 2013-14 Excess Vote, which provides further funding for the Department of Education and the Department of Health. The Main Estimates for DFP state that it will be unable to quantify the liability faced due the voluntary exit scheme and that it will become clear only in-year. I am concerned that that will affect the ability of not only the Department of Finance and Personnel but other Departments to work effectively. It appears that the Departments have not yet been able to forward plan to deal with that. I know that many civil servants are looking ahead, trying to plan ahead and trying to work their way through this, so it is important that they, too, have clarity on what their circumstances will be.
I will conclude at that, Mr Deputy Speaker. Thank you very much for the opportunity to put that on record.

Mr Swann (The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning): I welcome the opportunity to outline the Committee for Employment and Learning's consideration and views on the Supply resolution Main Estimates 2015-16. As it is one of the Executive's largest spenders, scrutiny of the DEL budget is taken very seriously by the Committee, and, to that extent, Minister Farry briefed it on the budget on 26 November, 10 December, 3 February and 18 March to provide details of the changing situation with his Department's budget.

During his briefing on 3 February, the Minister informed the Committee that the original total for the reductions that he had to find was £82 million. However, due to a reallocation of £20 million from the Executive, the total reductions to be found fell to £62 million.

I also welcome the fact that the Executive have listened to Committee and others' warnings about the Department for Employment and Learning's spending and provided £13·2 million of change fund money to bring the Department's opening baseline budget cut to £48·3 million.

In dealing with the pressures, the Employment and Learning Minister outlined his way forward to the Committee. The Minister provided detail of £33·2 million reductions made up of £18 million of cuts rolling forward from the 2014-15 budget and £3·5 million of efficiency savings from the employment service.

The main issue that exercised the minds of the Committee during the Minister's briefings was the impact on student places in our universities and colleges and the knock-on impact on the Northern Ireland economy. In detailing what the impact will be, the Minister outlined that the remaining £30·1 million pressure on the budget will be managed by a reduction to the universities of £16 million, a reduction to the further education (FE) colleges of £12 million and further departmental efficiencies of £4·1 million. The Minister accepted that the remaining £6 million of savings to be found by the universities will most likely result in a cut in university places and jobs. This is at a time when the Minister has warned that even no reduction in jobs or places is not a positive option and that an increase in places is needed for the sake of the future of Northern Ireland as a growing economy. On that issue, the Committee welcomed the commitment by the universities that there will be a protection of the narrow STEM subjects, given their importance to the economy.

The Committee welcomed the allocation of £7·5 million from the change fund to enable the Department to proceed with piloting the new apprenticeship strategy and the youth training strategy, but it is concerned that those new initiatives may not cover the shortfall found elsewhere. The Committee has also noted with concern that the Minister has been unable to guarantee committing extra funding to vocational skills and apprenticeship programmes to meet the demand that will result from a shortfall in places at colleges and universities.

The Committee welcomed the fact that the Minister is not cutting the further education and higher education support that it gives to students with disabilities, and also that it is not cutting its disability employment programme. The Committee was also content to note that the Department is also protecting the hobby and leisure provision for people who have learning disabilities.

At its meeting on 20 May 2015, the Committee was briefed on the June monitoring round by departmental officials and welcomed the fact that the Department is making four non-ring-fenced bids.

The first bid is in relation to £6 million end-year flexibility to ensure that inescapable pressures are met across the further education sector. Departmental officials advised the Committee that it is absolutely critical that the Department receives that money, as failure to do so would mean that the money would have to be found elsewhere in the Department and create further pressures in the Department.

The second bid is for £5·5 million to meet inescapable contractual obligations or residual costs after the pausing of the youth employment scheme in December 2014 and the costs of the remodelled employer subsidy for 18- to 24-year-olds: £4 million of this bid relates to the youth employment scheme and the remaining £1·5 million relates to the remodelled element. Again, the bid for the youth employment scheme is a committed amount, and, if the bid is unsuccessful, the money will have to be found elsewhere in the Department.

The third bid is for £2·6 million of match funding for the European social fund to meet the match funding requirements of that programme. This is required to bridge the gap in the departmental match funding element, and, if not met, the money would have to be found elsewhere as it is already committed.

The fourth bid is for £1 million for the economic inactivity strategy to develop a range of pilots to see what works best to tackle economic inactivity. However, the Committee noted that this bid is not inescapable and could be delayed. The Committee has already expressed concern regarding the timelines for some of the projects that would not commence until 2016 or 2017, and even some as detailed as 2019. Therefore, if the strategy is delayed now, some projects may not commence until well into the new mandate in 2021.

The Committee also noted that the Department has submitted two capital bids — one for the further education colleges of £5·9 million, which is to ensure that colleges meet their legal and statutory obligations on health and safety and disability.

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

I now wish to make a few comments as a member of the Ulster Unionist Party and as a Member of the House. With regard to the Employment and Learning budget, I believe that the removal of the education maintenance allowance for the Pathways to Success programme has caused severe problems to many young people. The latest position from the Minister was that it was still on his desk. I hope that the Minister makes a positive decision and makes it soon. The Include Youth Give and Take online video that was posted recently will explain the importance of that funding.

With regard to the European social fund and the match funding, many organisations are still in limbo over the current programme and are waiting for money to be delivered from the Department so that they can finish off the last programme.

As chair of the all-party group on congenital heart disease, I will seek the confirmation of the allocation of moneys to provide the promised cardiac centre of excellence for children in Belfast, as recommended in the international working group report. I want to express my disappointment that the moneys — namely £1 million — promised a number of years ago by John Compton during the review of cardiac surgery in Belfast was utilised by the Minister of Health to send children across to England to have their surgery done there. The £1 million that was promised to revitalise the centre in Belfast was utilised elsewhere. So, I would like the financial commitment that that money will be promised in the incoming Budget.

Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): I am speaking today as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and will represent the views of that Committee.

The Committee received material and documentation from DARD on the Main Estimates and took oral evidence from officials on 2 June 2015. In carrying out its scrutiny of the Main Estimates, the Committee noted the following issues and concerns. First, and most importantly, the Department is the paying agency for EU grants to farmers. The Main Estimates that DARD presented to us on 2 June show a figure of just over £245 million for CAP. The administration and payment of CAP funds is DARD's single biggest task and responsibility. It is no surprise, therefore, that when we examined the Main Estimates, that is where the Committee focused its attention.

The Committee is adamant that the main priority for DARD should be its front-line services to farmers and the wider rural communities and, specifically, the payment of the EU grant. The Committee recently received a separate written briefing on the numbers applying for the EU grant through the single application form. We are aware that this year is a time of great change and flux for DARD. The system has changed, and, instead of a single payment of an EU grant to a farmer, there are now up to five separate areas where the farmer can claim payments. All those new areas need to be checked, inspected and verified, and some of those inspections are new and different from what went before. For example, all applicants to the