Official Report: Tuesday 14 June 2016
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it compatible with the processes of this House for the Finance Minister to authorise his officials to give evidence tomorrow to the Finance Committee about the June monitoring round and, today, pre-empt and nullify that process by choosing to make the June monitoring statement in advance of that? What sort of way is that to do business?
Mr Speaker: Mr Allister, I think you are aware that Standing Order 18(4) makes provision for a Minister to make oral statements at short notice. I am satisfied that those procedures have been followed and that the statement is in order. As you know, the Speaker does not become involved in Committee matters. Committees or Members who have concerns regarding the timing of statements should address them directly to the Minister.
Mr Speaker: Mr Chris Lyttle has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member will have up to three minutes to speak.
Mr Lyttle: It is a privilege to have the opportunity to present this petition of over 6,000 signatures to the Education Minister on behalf of the Parents for Equal Education Coalition, calling for full-time nursery provision for children with special educational needs in our community to be maintained.
Children like Charlie and parents like Angela and the many others who have gathered at Parliament Buildings today have been an inspiration to me and many other MLAs. The dignity and commitment that they are showing in their fight for full-time special educational needs nursery provision for their children is in stark contrast to the totally unacceptable approach of the Education Authority, which has failed to disclose to this Assembly parental and principal opposition to its proposals and to engage with parents meaningfully on the issue.
I call on the Education Minister to avoid becoming associated with that flawed approach and to make clear his support for full-time special educational needs nursery provision in our community.
Mr Speaker, I thank you for accepting this petition on behalf of the over 300 children who are only three years old and face having their future made more uncertain. I hope that the Minister of Education will receive this petition. As I said, over 6,000 members of the public agree that we should be giving our children with special educational needs the very best start in life and should be maintaining those vital early education services. I know the Education Minister is monitoring this extremely serious issue. I call on all MLAs to wake up to the urgency of the issue and work together to ensure that the reductions do not happen.
Mr Speaker: If you bring forward the petition, it will be lodged with the Minister of Education and a copy will be sent to the Committee.
Mr Lyttle moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.
Mr Speaker: The Minister of Finance wishes to make a statement on June —
Mr Smith: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Mr Allister alluded to this to a degree, but this morning, the Assembly was given less than an hour to consider a 37-page statement on the monitoring round. In addition, as far as I am aware, no Committee has been given a detailed briefing before today's announcements. Any opportunity for scrutiny has been strangled by the DUP/Sinn Féin Executive, who appear to be genuinely terrified of genuine accountability. [Interruption.]
As such, under Standing Order 16, I am formally asking —
Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to take his seat. That is not a point of order. If you have a point of order, raise it.
Mr Smith: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Under Standing Order 16, I am formally asking for this item of business to be adjourned until next Monday, 20 June, to give parties time to consider the content of the statement.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Speaker: We need to take time to consider that. I ask the Member to clarify under which Standing Order he is making his request.
"during any debate, any debate on the motion".
This is not a debate. It is a statement by the Minister. Therefore, Standing Order 16 does not apply.
The Minister of Finance wishes to make a statement on June monitoring. Minister.
Mr Ó Muilleoir (The Minister of Finance): It was good to hear children's voices in the Gallery earlier. Occasionally, we hear childish voices in the Assembly, perhaps from all sides, but certainly children's voices give a right good lift to the day. If you will allow me, Mr Speaker, in relation to Chris Lyttle's proposal, I want to say that, in this monitoring round, we will allocate £5 million for special educational needs. I know that that will bring cheer to him and the parents who are with us today.
There have been two attempts to delay this statement. There have been concerns about the style of the statement and the monitoring round. Let me say to all my colleagues that this is what streamlined, efficient government looks like. This is the earliest monitoring round presented to the Assembly. This, in my view, is an example of a Government that deliver, and this is an indication of how we intend to do that in the time ahead. So take it, a Cheann Comhairle and Members, as a statement of intent to deliver for all our people.
A Cheann Comhairle, ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt duit as deis a thabhairt domh an ráiteas seo a chur i láthair an Tionóil inniu. Is é seo an chéad bhabhta monatóireachta den treimhse nua seo, agus tabharfaidh Comhaltaí faoi deara nach ionann é agus na babhtaí a chuaigh romhainn ar chúiseanna a mhíneoidh mé ar ball beag. Mr Speaker, I thank you for affording me the opportunity to present this statement to the Assembly. This is the first monitoring statement in the new mandate and it signals a marked departure — as Members have noticed — from previous formats, for reasons that I will explain shortly.
The monitoring round presented the new Executive with a number of very significant challenges. Many of those challenges emanate from the austerity agenda that the Westminster Government seek to impose upon the devolved Administrations. No doubt, we will return to that later in the Budget debate and rehearse some of the arguments we heard yesterday about how the Tories have no mandate here, what their wishes for our people are and how we are going to resist those. The imposition of an austerity agenda is entirely unacceptable, and I will make best endeavours to prevent the least-well-off from shouldering that burden.
Despite the challenges, the Executive have been able to conclude the monitoring round without having to engage in a draconian cuts exercise, confounding, may I say, the predictions of the naysayers. Given the pressing need to bring clarity to Departments and Ministers on the 2016-17 in-year position so that they can get to work with the money I am allocating, and in the interests of efficient governance, the Executive have agreed to my request to expedite the monitoring round through the urgent procedure mechanism. This is the earliest point at which any Finance Minister has announced the June monitoring outcome, and the quick conclusion of the process signals my intention, and the intention of my ministerial colleagues, to conclude business in a timely manner. I believe that the next Executive meeting will be at the very end of the month, and I think that this is a much more efficient way to proceed for all the people we serve.
Turning to the substantive issues within this monitoring round, let me begin by highlighting that the Executive’s deliberations have actually delivered many positive outcomes that citizens will warmly welcome. The allocations are a signal of intent, as well. They show where our priorities lie.
Here is the detail. The starting point for the June monitoring round has to be the outcome of last year’s provisional out-turn. That determines how much money we have carried forward from the previous financial year into the monitoring round. I therefore begin with the 2015-16 provisional out-turn. Provisional out-turn is critically important for the Executive. Not only does it provide a strong indication of departmental budget management performance during the last financial year, but it determines the amount of resources that the Executive can plan to carry forward through the devolved Administration Budget exchange scheme (BES).
In detailing this position, as well as in relation to the June monitoring round, my focus will be on the non-ring-fenced resource departmental expenditure limit, as that is the element that funds our important public services. I will refer to that as "resource DEL" for simplicity hereafter. I will touch on the non-cash ring-fenced resource DEL element, which is handled separately, since that is strictly controlled and cannot be used for any other purpose.
Under the Budget exchange scheme, the Executive may carry forward a limited level of underspend, based on a percentage of the final Budget for the year. For 2015-16, the limit of 0·6% resource DEL equates to £59·5 million within the 1·5% capital DEL limit, providing for up to £11·5 million, including ring-fenced financial transactions capital (FTC). Members should note that any underspends recorded above those amounts would be lost to the Executive.
Before I turn to the amount that the Executive have been able to carry forward, I would like to highlight the individual departmental position. I will start with the departmental outcome. In their provisional out-turn returns, Departments registered total underspends of £44·4 million for resource DEL and £20·8 million for capital DEL. That is detailed in the tables attached to this statement. The level of departmental underspend in resource DEL is a little higher than I would have envisaged, given the budgetary challenges faced by Departments during 2015-16, although I recognise that an element of the underspend relates to the allocations made from the public sector transformation fund for voluntary exit schemes, where actual costs were often dependent upon the decisions of individuals and, therefore, as Members will understand, difficult to forecast.
The total departmental underspend of £20·8 million in capital DEL comprises £9·5 million relating to conventional capital DEL and £11·3 million relating to financial transactions capital. We will come back to that issue. The level of underspend of financial transactions capital is indicative of the challenges associated with developing suitable schemes that can utilise this funding, which can be used only for the purpose of loans to, or equity investment in, the private sector. I put out that challenge again — it was put out yesterday to Members — to find imaginative and innovative ways to use financial transactions capital.
I will move on to the implications of the carry forward of resources. The Budget exchange scheme carry forward is determined at block level. Therefore, account also needs to be taken of the various centrally held items that impact on the overall block position. The main component of these is the year-end overcommitment position, which, following the receipt of some additional Barnett consequentials and easements identified by Departments, amounted to £9 million of capital DEL, with £9·2 million of resource DEL being held unallocated for carry forward. In capital DEL, an element of the departmental underspend related to projects funded by borrowing. As the actual level of borrowing drawn was reduced to take account of that, some £1·3 million of the departmental underspend is not included in the block underspend position.
As a consequence of these adjustments, the Executive have marginally exceeded their conventional capital DEL control by £0·8 million. In line with the Budget exchange scheme rules, this will be deducted from our resource DEL carry forward. Therefore, there will be no carry forward of conventional capital DEL into 2016-17. However, the Executive can carry forward in full their underspend of FTC totalling £11·3 million.
With respect to resource DEL, the unallocated £9·2 million, combined with lower than forecast reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) interest payments and a small increase in regional rate income, has resulted in the carry forward of £56·1 million of resource DEL into 2016-17.
In conclusion, and most importantly in relation to provisional out-turn, no spending power has been lost to the Executive as a result of year-end underspends. As the tables show, there is an underspend of £11·5 million on ring-fenced resource DEL, which would exceed the amount available for carry forward. However, as that may be used for only the non-cash costs relating to depreciation and impairments, it has no impact on the level of funding available for public services and is, instead, a technical accounting matter. As the Executive have ample funding for these non-cash costs, no additional benefit would be gained should it be possible to carry forward that amount. Whilst I remain concerned by the level of underspend on ring-fenced financial transactions capital — as I said yesterday, and say again — it is pleasing that no resources have been lost to the Executive and that significant resource DEL can be carried forward under the Budget exchange scheme to help address the many pressures in the June monitoring round.
I turn now to the June monitoring round. Before getting into the specifics of the monitoring round, I think it is worth highlighting that the Executive have secured £4·5 million from banking fines to establish an air ambulance service. I know that Members across the House called for that air ambulance service. That funding will be received over three years, and £1 million will be allocated to the Department of Health in this monitoring round. I think all Members will agree that this is a welcome development that will greatly benefit our community. I think it will be particularly welcomed by those outside the city of Belfast.
I will turn now to the specifics of the June monitoring round, starting with a number of adjustments relating to centrally held items. Members may recall that the Budget 2016-17 held £30 million of the funding, previously identified for mitigating measures for tax credits, pending the results of Professor Evason’s work on welfare reform mitigations. As you know, Professor Evason’s report recommended that the Executive should introduce measures costing £64 million in 2016-17. With £75 million having already been allocated to the Department for Communities, the £30 million held centrally is now available for reallocation.
Updates to forecasts of regional rate income and interest payments on borrowing provided an additional £2·3 million, while the block grant adjustment for air passenger duty (APD) being lower than provided for in the Budget contributes a further £0·2 million.
The Chancellor's March 2016 Budget provided additional Barnett consequentials of £5·8 million of resource DEL and £3 million of capital DEL, which are now available for allocation.
As I set out earlier, the Executive can now plan to carry forward £56·1 million of resource DEL and £11·3 million of financial transactions capital under the Budget exchange scheme. Of course, that amount is subject to review once Departments have provided final out-turn information, based on their audited accounts. Any adjustments to the amount carried forward will be handled in a future monitoring round.
I turn now to the central pressures, of which Members will be aware. In 2015-16, receipts from the carrier bag levy exceeded allocations to environmental programmes by £0·5 million. Receipts from the levy must be used to support environmental programmes, so the Executive must now return £0·5 million to DAERA for that purpose.
The Executive must meet the cost of the May 2016 Assembly elections. It is currently estimated to be £5·3 million, and that amount has been transferred to the Northern Ireland Office. Adjustments will be made later in the year when final costs are confirmed.
Under legislation, the salaries of statutory office holders are met directly from the NI Consolidated Fund (NICF). Those include the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Lands Tribunal and judicial salaries. The salary costs also show in the relative Department's resource DEL budget, but, as they are a direct charge on the NICF, the costs are funded centrally. The latest estimate indicates that an additional £1 million of resource DEL funding will be required in this year, and it will be transferred to the relevant Departments in this monitoring round.
In total, taking into account the opening overcommitment and other central issues that have been noted resulted in £87·7 million of resource DEL and £3·2 million capital DEL being available, before taking account of departmental reduced requirements.
Departments declared reduced requirements in this monitoring round of £35·1 million of resource DEL and £18·5 million of capital DEL. Full details are in the tables provided with the statement. The most notable item on the resource DEL side is the reduction of £35 million from the Department for Communities for welfare support measures reflecting the outcome of the Evason review, which I mentioned earlier, and slippage in the roll-out of welfare reforms — the welfare attack.
I turn now to internal reallocations. With changes to departmental structures and new Ministers taking up post only in May 2016, there is clearly a risk that the departmental budgets for 2016-17 are not aligned to ministerial priorities in the new Departments. I think that that is understandable. In that regard, the Executive agreed, through the Budget process, that the first monitoring round of 2016-17 should provide an opportunity for new Ministers to realign their own 2016-17 Budget allocations. Ministers have therefore been afforded the opportunity in this monitoring round to move funding across spending areas without recourse to the Executive. New unit of service tables aligned to the June monitoring position and reflecting ministerial priorities are detailed in the tables accompanying the statement.
Departments may also, for a number of reasons, seek to reclassify expenditure from resource to capital, or vice versa. All such reclassifications need Executive approval, and those are also shown in the tables accompanying the statement.
Departments may also, subject to Department of Finance approval, seek to move budget between the ring-fenced and non-ring-fenced resource DEL categories. The impact of those moves is shown in the table detailing the ring-fenced resource DEL position.
All the adjustments impacted on the total amount of resource available to the Executive in this monitoring round. Once all the issues were taken into account, the Executive had £126 million of resource DEL and £17·7 million of capital DEL available to allocate.
Before turning to the mainstream allocations, there are a number of other important issues that I wish to highlight to Members, starting with ring-fenced financial transactions capital (FTC).
After taking account of the carry-forward of £11·3 million of FTC from 2015-16, the Executive have a total FTC budget of £124·8 million this year. Of that, £55·8 million has been set aside for the planned investment fund.
Departments have declared reduced requirements in this round of £11·4 million, while the Department for Communities has been allocated £5·5 million to support co-ownership housing, which is welcome news, in particular given Jonathan Bell's comments yesterday and the concerns of all Members. The £5·5 million towards co-ownership housing will contribute to delivering social and affordable homes over this mandate.
As a consequence of those changes, the Executive exit this monitoring round with £17·2 million of financial transactions capital remaining unallocated. Our capacity to identify suitable projects that can spend the FTC available to us remains an area of concern, and I have therefore asked Ministers actively to seek opportunities to utilise the funding through loans or equity investments in the private sector.
I now turn to central funds. As part of Budget 2016-17, the Executive set aside £14 million resource DEL and £15 million capital DEL for Delivering Social Change (DSC) in this financial year. The Executive Office has confirmed a range of allocations under the Delivering Social Change banner to be processed in this monitoring round, including the following: £13·8 million resource and £6 million capital to the Executive Office for various social investment fund and Delivering Social Change projects, which will cheer everyone; £1·6 million resource and £0·7 million capital to the Department of Health for the Bright Start school-age children scheme and Delivering Social Change; and £0·3 million resource to the Department of Education for Bright Start childcare. All those allocations will be welcomed across the House.
The Executive have also agreed to the transfer of £1·7 million from the Atlantic Philanthropies fund to the DSC programme to provide sufficient funding for all the allocations detailed. Any time we mention Atlantic Philanthropies and its generosity towards this Government, we should also salute the great Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney. The Executive also agreed the transfer of £0·4 million capital DEL from DSC to the shared future programme. Following these allocations, there is now £7·9 million capital DEL and no resource DEL unallocated relating to the Delivering Social Change programme.
Budget 2016-17 set aside £8 million resource DEL for the Atlantic Philanthropies programme, which I referenced. The Executive Office has advised that an allocation of £3·6 million resource to Health for the early intervention and dementia programmes should be processed in this monitoring round. Taking account of the transfer to the Delivering Social Change programme, this means that £2·6 million resource DEL remains in the Atlantic Philanthropies fund.
Colleagues will recall that, in Budget 2016-17, the Executive set aside £7·1 million resource DEL for a change fund, including £1·5 million for estate rationalisation led by the estate management unit in conjunction with the reform of property management programme in the Department of Finance. A further £4·5 million was set aside for cross-cutting reform projects and £1·1 million for a pilot small business research initiative challenge fund. I can now report that all that funding has been allocated to Departments in this monitoring round.
The Fresh Start Agreement secured £60 million over five years to support the creation of a shared future. The Executive’s Budget 2016-17 set aside £12 million resource DEL in this year and the Executive Office has advised that the following allocations should be processed in this monitoring round: £7·4 million to the Executive Office to cover a wide range of shared future measures; £1·5 million to Education for summer camps and shared education campuses; £1·5 million to Communities for shared housing and cross-community sporting events; and £1·1 million resource DEL and £0·4 million capital DEL to the Department of Justice for the removal of interface barriers. That is all good news. My officials will engage with the Treasury in securing access to this funding through the Westminster Supplementary Estimates. Following these adjustments, £0·5 million of the funding available for a shared future remains unallocated.
The Department of Justice has been provided with the requested £0·8 million resource and £0·5 million capital from the funding provided by the Executive to progress measures to tackle paramilitary activity. This will fund the cost of a three-person panel and supporting secretariat, a Fresh Start implementation team, a publicity campaign, and the purchase of specialist forensic science equipment.
I now turn to other allocations in the June monitoring round. Allocations totalling £140·1 million resource DEL and £29·1 million capital DEL have been agreed. The individual allocations are detailed in the tables and include £67 million resource DEL to the Department of Health, bringing the total additional funding provided to health in 2016-17 to £200 million. In anyone's language, that is a significant commitment to health. However, as we are all aware — it has been repeated across the House from all sides — continually providing additional funding to Health does not address the underlying issues. Therefore, it is vital that the reforms identified as a result of the work led by Professor Bengoa be implemented. The Executive have agreed to support the Health Minister in delivering substantial reforms to our health service.
Thirty million pounds in resource DEL has been allocated to the Department of Education. This comprises £20 million for schools in line with the commitment provided to the previous Education Minister by my predecessor. There is a further £5 million for special educational needs, which I mentioned at the start of my statement, and £5 million for the drawdown of school surpluses under the schools end-year flexibility (EYF) scheme.
Twenty-five million pounds in resource DEL has been allocated to the Department for the Economy. This comprises £20 million for skills in line with the commitment provided to the previous Minister for Employment and Learning by my predecessor; that is three commitments in a row kept. There is a further £5 million for the drawdown of further education (FE) college surpluses under the FE college end-year flexibility scheme.
The Department for Communities has been allocated £8·3 million resource DEL to cover pressures, including £4·3 million for maternity grants and funeral loans.
It also includes — I am very pleased and proud about this — £2 million to honour the commitment in the Fresh Start Agreement for welfare advice centres. This will help those most in need to receive their full benefit entitlement. The remaining £2 million will be used to address other inescapable pressures in the Department, such as the derating grant.
A total of £1·5 million resource DEL has been allocated to DAERA for the knowledge transfer scheme to address the skills gap in the farming sector; £3 million resource DEL to the Department for Justice for a number of central pressures; and £5·3 million resource DEL to the Department for Infrastructure for road maintenance and flood prevention, another issue that came up yesterday.
On capital DEL — I know that Members will welcome this — the Department for Infrastructure will receive £22·9 million, with the majority going to improve our roads infrastructure. Flood prevention and Waterways Ireland are also to receive allocations.
The Department of Health will also receive £5 million capital DEL. Each year. the hearing of approximately 25,000 babies is screened here, with around 450 babies requiring referral to diagnostic audiology services. This funding will provide a robust mechanism for recording the results of these tests, ensuring that the right treatment is provided to babies where that is necessary. It will also enhance the communication systems between ambulance control and crews, providing for more reliable 999 responses.
I have spoken, at Committee and to the media, several times since my election about the importance that I place on the regeneration of border regions, which are on the periphery of two economies. Cross-border cooperation, however, puts those same communities at the heart of the all-island economy. That is why I am proud to be the first Minister since 2010 to make a capital allocation to a cross-border body in a monitoring round.
On Friday past, I visited the headquarters of Waterways Ireland. I met the amazing team leading it and saw the transformational work that they are involved in to make the Loch Erne waterway a beacon for tourism. With 6,000 boats on the Erne, Waterways Ireland is on the cusp of creating the most outstanding blueway in Europe, which will boost tourism, create jobs and revive the border region. I am allocating £1·4 million to the Department for Infrastructure, which will assist Waterways Ireland with its bold capital investment plans.
I have also provided the Department for the Economy with £1·3 million to complete the HMS Caroline museum project, which will also boost our tourism sector. This project — I was at the launch — benefited hugely from Big Lottery money, but we need to complete the project if it is to fulfil its tourism potential, so I am pleased to make that allocation also.
Ring-fenced resource DEL is strictly controlled, and funding cannot be moved out of this area. Changes to the area are shown in the tables accompanying this statement. Colleagues will note that we exit this monitoring round with £15·6 million of ring-fenced resource DEL unallocated. This funding may be used only to address pressures within the ring fence — depreciation and impairments — it is therefore not available for allocation by the Executive.
Before concluding, a Cheann Comhairle, I would like to update Members on the public sector transformation fund. Colleagues will recall that, in the Budget 2016-17, the Executive agreed allocations totalling £117·8 million, including £84·7 million for voluntary exit schemes and £33·1 million to restructure the teaching workforce. The Executive also agreed that £25 million of the £200 million available to the public sector transformation fund in 2016-17 should be used for capital projects, leaving some £57·4 million available for allocation through the 2016-17 in–year monitoring process.
The public sector reform division has, over recent months, liaised with Departments to identify easements on allocations agreed in the Budget and any new allocations to schemes with capacity to deliver further savings for the Executive’s Budget. Changes to allocations in this monitoring round under the public sector transformation fund are detailed in the tables accompanying this statement.
As a result of the allocations detailed above, we exit this monitoring round with a £13·5 million overcommitment in respect of resource DEL and £11·4 million on capital DEL.
Earlier this year, we had a lengthy debate in the House on the renewable heat incentive scheme and the problems with it. Members who were there or who read about it in the media will be aware that a potential additional resource DEL pressure exists in relation to commitments under the renewable heat incentive. I am not proposing an allocation to the Department for the Economy in this round as the Executive are determined that every effort be made to reduce this pressure. I ask Members to support any measures brought before them that would help to mitigate what would otherwise be a considerable ongoing pressure on the Executive’s DEL. I would also like to assure Members that this potential pressure has been considered when developing these monitoring round proposals, and I am content that it can be managed within our DEL controls.
Before I conclude, I would like to make Members aware that the Executive have agreed a draft timetable and approach for the upcoming Budget that will set resource DEL plans up to 2019-2020 and capital DEL to 2020-21. It will come as no surprise that there are a number of strategic issues facing the Executive over this period, not least the need to work in parallel with the Programme for Government process to allow the Budget to support the Executive's priorities while ensuring that those aims are realistic within the overall funding envelope. In light of this, the Executive have agreed that Department of Finance officials will work closely with Departments over the summer to form a view on the funding each Department requires.
In conclusion — and this is the conclusion, a Cheann Comhairle — as I said at the start of the statement, I am strongly opposed, and we will hear it later today, to the austerity agenda and the constraints that it inflicts and imposes upon the Assembly. I will continue to fight against austerity at all levels and, alongside that, seek to develop innovative funding options. However, despite the constraints inflicted upon us, I am pleased that the June monitoring round reflects a positive outcome with additional funding being provided to key public services — around £170 million in funding for Departments if I have got my sums right. This monitoring round has delivered extra resources for health, education, skills, roads, housing, welfare and tourism.
Mar sin, a Cheann Comhairle, ba mhaith liom an babhta monatóireachta agus an ráiteas seo a mholadh don Tionól. I commend the June monitoring outcome to the Assembly.
Mr Smith: The Minister said that today's statement is significantly different from those of previous monitoring rounds. He is right in that this Assembly used to be informed not only of allocations but of bids. Looking at his statement today, I see no indication whatsoever of the pressures Departments had identified and bid for. Can the Minister explain why this information was left out of the statement? Can he give a commitment that, after today's proceedings, he will circulate it to the House?
(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ruane] in the Chair)
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I think that it is appropriate for Mr Smith to take up the points that he said earlier in an attempt to delay the statement. I think that I might be the first Minister to go in and see the Committee for Finance, maybe simultaneously with the Executive Office Ministers. I intend to have very collegial and honest engagement with Members from all parties. This morning, I became the first Minister in some time to brief the Chair and Deputy Chair. My predecessors, God bless them, briefed only the Chair on these matters. I intend to stay with that tradition of seeing the Committee often and seeing the Chair and Deputy Chair.
I will say this: this is the choice that you have made. We want to have an effective, streamlined, efficient Government delivering for all our people. You want to be in an Opposition that is in the back seat. You want to drive from the back seat. You want to hold progress up. Our intention is to ensure that we do things. We deliver the actions. We do the deeds. Others may be strong in words, but this Government will be very strong in deeds moving forward. You can be assured of this: the Assembly and the Committee will have my full cooperation, but you cannot hold back progress. Scrutinise and challenge, certainly, but let us move forward. People want us to make progress swiftly.
Mrs Little Pengelly (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): I would like to thank the Minister for the very strong statement this morning and in particular the swift agreement by the Northern Ireland Executive on June monitoring. I particularly welcome the additional £67 million to the Department of Health along with the increase at the beginning of this Budget period of an additional £133 million. This does meet the commitment of the Executive to that additional £200 million each year. As the Minister will be aware, and we have discussed this already, much more is required than just resources to put Health on a sustainable footing. Transformation is required. I notice from his statement that there is £69 million of unallocated financial transactions capital and £59 million unallocated in the public sector transformation fund. Will the Minister give a commitment to work constructively with the Committee to look at those unallocated funds and opportunities around funding and initiatives in order to bring about the necessary transformation to put the Department of Health on a sustainable footing?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: You can take it that this is not a spectator sport. You are right: there are parties in government and in opposition, but I think that ideas on how we be more efficient in delivery of services should come from all sides. It cheers me that we have reached a place in this House where people are not saying that the solution to the pressures that society and the community face is always to spend more money.
I think we all agree that on health the solution is to have better outcomes, to use our money wisely and to adopt the Bengoa proposals. That, in many ways, is depoliticising health. So, on all the matters you raise and in the interests of cooperation and making sure we get the biggest bang for our buck, you can be assured that I will work positively with colleagues.
Mr O'Dowd: I agree with the Minister that the public out there are more interested in product than in process and want to see changes being delivered to our society. Will the monitoring rounds form part of a strategic delivery of product to our people out there? Will they form part of a budgetary process to see resources being directed to where they are required?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Aontaím go huile agus go hiomlán leat gur tábhachtaí le daoine táirge ná próiseas. I agree with you entirely about delivery of product rather than process. This was not a horse-trading exercise. We have a positive Government with the DUP and Sinn Féin and with Claire Sugden as Minister of Justice. We did not engage in having the wish lists that I have seen in previous Governments where Ministers put in bids that they know are not realistic. We had a hard-headed negotiation with all the Ministers. They understand, as I understand, that we are all in this together. This is a holistic Government. For years, people in here have complained about a silo Government and silo Departments. This is a Government acting with common purpose, moving forward together. So, in that regard, the monitoring round has to fit into our overall ambition for this Government and for our people. It should not be a wish list, horse-trading or hoping that one Department will get money and deny it to others. In fact, what I saw with ministerial colleagues in our private discussions was that they understood that, if there is a greater priority, you need to step back. If we need to finish a project or fund a project and your Department does not need it as much, you need to step back and say, "What is for the greater good?" This is a Government fuelled, I think, with common purpose that shows by this monitoring round that we are intent to deliver, but I take entirely on board what you say, and this has to be part of our strategic approach.
It is early days. This, I think, is a good outcome for us today. We have managed to allocate £175 million. We have made a significant difference, but let us keep up the good work. Let us keep our shoulder to the wheel because we need to repeat this later in the year not only in relation to the Budget coming up for 2017-2020 for resource and 2017-2021 for capital but in other monitoring rounds.
Ms Hanna: We appreciate the Minister's energy, but we support the view that there has not been sufficient time to scrutinise the statement. The first big report of the mandate was the paramilitary report. The First Ministers completely bypassed the Assembly on that occasion. At least you have taken questions, but one hour for Members to scrutinise is not sufficient.
I am looking at a couple of the figures here. Despite having significantly reduced powers in this mandate, £19·2 million has been allocated to the Executive Office for the social investment fund and Delivering Social Change, and a further £7·4 million has been allocated for shared future measures, as well as money that has gone to other Departments for the same purpose. Will the Minister clarify what that shared future measures money for the Executive Office will be spent on?
Can I get clarity on one other item? On page 6, you refer to a £126·2 million resource DEL and £17·7 million capital DEL, and, on page 8, it refers to a £140·1 million resource DEL and £29·1 million capital DEL. Will you outline the reason for the discrepancy in those figures?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member and thank her for attending the briefing this morning. She is right: I have some sympathy. The sympathy I felt for Mr Nesbitt yesterday was to do with the 138 pages of Estimates. We need to make government work for the people, and there is a chance now to look at what we have done and to comment upon it, and you are welcome to do that. The figures are right, and I am happy for you to drill down into them.
I want to say this: this is the second time in two days that the social investment fund has been attacked and traduced in this Chamber. I am going to read again where the social investment fund is making a difference. Those who are trying to pillory the efforts of working-class communities, especially in Taughmonagh and Sandy Row because that is where the target has been, need to visit those communities and meet the heroes and pioneers who are trying to build up those communities, which have not received an adequate peace dividend, whether it is Tigers Bay, the Markets or the New Lodge.
With your permission, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, I am going to state again some of what the social investment fund has done. It provided £1 million to make the Bryson Street Surgery happen, which people know is at a very difficult interface, and of course, the build is complete and operational. On increasing community services, there is the Best of East Visitor Centre. That build is complete and will commence operations in the coming weeks. In fact, I think that it has perhaps commenced operations, because some friends have visited it. Who is not proud of the marvellous work being carried out by our friends in EastSide Arts and the East Belfast Partnership?
Again, on increasing community services in Belfast, there is £1·7 million for the community centre at Finvoy Street, the Greenway Women's Centre and the centre at Castlereagh Street. Again, that is another marvellous result from the social investment fund. There is £99,000 for the Short Strand Community Centre, for which a letter of offer has been issued. The list goes on, and those projects are being delivered.
Was that too slow for my liking? Yes, it absolutely was too slow, and I am determined as Finance Minister to be swifter. When we are swifter with the social investment fund, I hope that people do not come to the House and say, "It's too fast. You are getting the money into communities to rebuild them and transform lives too quickly", because, for me, that is very much our job.
The shared future fund goes through the Executive Office to other Departments. The district councils' good relations programme is £0·6 million. Summer intervention funding is £0·11 million. The central good relations fund is £3 million. Summer camps funding is £0·2 million. I will do what I did yesterday for the Member and email her this later.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I will have to continue to read this then. Urban Villages is £0·7 million. Urban Villages is £1·6 million. Contested spaces is £0·2 million. Together: Building a United Community shared future promotion publicity is £0·03 million — that is £30,000. Shared future staffing for Urban Villages is £0·149 million. I think that we will leave it like that, but I could go through the whole list.
Dr Farry: I congratulate the Minister on his efficiency with the June monitoring statement. I do not believe that any procedures have been broken by the manner in which the statement has been brought to us today, but there is a genuine issue around transparency on the full pressures being faced across Departments. Hopefully, the Minister can rectify that gap.
On the additional money for skills — I welcome his following-through on the commitment made by his predecessor — does the Minister recognise that the £20 million will only avoid further cuts happening on an in-year basis? If we are to see proper investment in the transformation of our economy through future Budget rounds, there needs to be a further ramping-up of investment in skills across apprenticeships, FE colleges and, indeed, our universities. Will he clarify whether the £20 million is to be baselined, as was the intent of his predecessor in his correspondence to me in my previous role?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Chomhalta as a cheist. I thought that the former Minister might have more of a smile this morning. I am disappointed to see that the glass is still half empty, because when Mervyn Storey left those IOUs, I was not obliged to honour them, but I thought that it was important to do so. You are absolutely right about the need to invest in higher education and to point out that we cannot really build for corporation tax if we do not have a strong tertiary-level education system delivering first-class graduates.
This is my first bite at this particular cherry. I have tried to honour your commitment. I have met both vice chancellors, Paddy Johnston and Paddy Nixon: one in Derry and one in Queen's University. You know that they make a strong case, and you know that it is a cogent and logical case, but we do not have money to do everything that we want to do. I do not want to promise further than what we have done today. The £20 million is, of course, not only for universities. I am a big fan of the Belfast Met and the other community colleges — I suppose that that is what you would call them — and they have to get some money out of it as well.
The Member should be content that, even though he has left the post, the thrust of what he wanted is being delivered. There is much, much more to do, but I understand the vital importance of third-level education to the success of this community, and I want to make sure that as many people as possible can access a third-level education.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I think that Eamonn was going to mention Magee, so we might get to that as well.
Anyway, I believe, as was said previously, that access to university should be based on your ability to learn, not on your ability to pay. I commend the stance that the Minister took previously. Maybe he did not get the funding when he wanted it, but I think that we are on a different trajectory now, and I hope that this is the start of continued investment in building up our universities and further education colleges.
Mr Girvan: I welcome the statement and thank the Minister for it. I appreciate that two amounts have been set aside for capital and resource for the Department for Infrastructure. Each and every one of us has concerns about the road maintenance budget, which has already been cut in the projected budget for this year. The maintenance budget is £5·3 million, but I would like clarification: was there a bid for additional moneys for the maintenance budget for the forthcoming year?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for his question. The interest in roads — it was referenced yesterday — is twofold. We want efficient roads that are passable, that we can be proud of and that we can drive on, but we are also concerned about the construction industry and making sure that the many jobs for the people who are out maintaining our roads — we see them every day — are still available when we release the budgets.
When I met my ministerial colleagues, all wanted more at first cut, but, after mature discussions, the bids from Departments were, by and large, realised. I think that you will find — I am sure that the Minister for Infrastructure will speak about this — that this will make a significant difference in-year to the number of repairs that we do on our roads. It is not really a very wise policy to have potholes, because people then claim against the Government and we lose money, but you will find that this will make a significant difference in the time ahead. I do not know whether it will cheer you entirely, but I think that you will find that it makes a significant difference.
Mr McElduff: Tá ceist agam, agus moladh agam, don Aire. I encourage the Finance Minister to continue, where possible, to support early intervention programmes and special needs programmes in education. I seek an assurance from the Minister that he and the Education Minister will support and give a good listening ear to school principals, who, at this time, feel under pressure because of the with additional pressures on school budgets. I appreciate the financial constraints imposed on the Minister by the Westminster cuts.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt don Chomhalta as an cheist sin a chur. Is ambasadóir láidir é ar son an oideachais, agus tá a fhios agam go bhfuil dea-chaidreamh aige le príomhoidí, le múinteoirí agus le tuistí i gceantar s’aige. The Member is a strong ambassador for increased investment in education and always carries the standard for principals, teachers, parents and children.
I am pleased that we have been able to make an additional allocation to schools. I am a supporter of the Bright Start programme. The discussion on how the money will be used is now with the Education Minister, Peter Weir, but the views of the Member and my views are perfectly aligned. We understand the importance of early intervention, making sure that all children have a great opportunity in life, and it has to start very early. I am heartened not only by the passion of the advocacy by educationalists and parents but by the fact that, across the Chamber, Members from all parties agree that education is a priority.
Given that we never have enough money to do everything that we want to do, it is fair to say that we understand where the priorities are, and that is why there is extra money in this monitoring round for education and for special educational needs. I want to make sure that we reinforce the delivery of initiatives such as pathways, and I wish the Education Minister well as he endeavours to make sure that we make an even greater positive impact for our young people.
Mr Wells: I am sure that the Minister will accept that he is building on the strong foundations laid by his predecessors Mr Hamilton, Mr Storey and, of course, Mr Wilson.
Mr Wells: And Mr Robinson. And Mr Dodds. Will he accept that, as my colleague has already said, whilst the monitoring round improvements in funding for road maintenance are indeed welcome, if we do not, through either the monitoring rounds or better funding in the main Budget, deal with the situation soon, we are storing up huge problems for the future? If we do not maintain our roads, in 20 or 30 years' time we will have a vast expenditure, because we will have to fundamentally rebuild them.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I do, Mr Wells. I think you have forgotten Finance Minister Durkan. I do not think that goes back before your time; it certainly goes back before the time of many Members here, but I think you were here for that period as well. You are absolutely right: penny wise, pound foolish. We need to invest in our roads infrastructure; we need to get this right. It is important that, as we do face constraints, we do not ignore investment. If we do, what will happen is that a year or two down the road we are landed with a huge financial headache. We take that on board. It has been a position voiced by many Members, about not only the roads in Belfast but the rural and minor roads as well. We need to make sure that we invest in this network — it is important for our people, it is important for the success of our society, it is important for tourism and it is important for visitors. Your point is well made.
Each of the Finance Ministers you mentioned — whatever about the Finance Minister I mentioned; that was before my time — was prudent and aware of the pressures which impose upon our spending, and they always tried to act in a wise and prudent fashion. I intend to do the same to make sure that there is no neglect in investment which will create a headache at a later date.
Mr Swann: Minister, you mentioned the renewable heat incentive and asked Members to support any pressure brought before them because you have not made a bid in this monitoring round. Can you therefore give us guidance as to what the timescale is for those measures that are going to be brought? Also, I see you are content that any pressures can be managed within your current DEL controls.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for his question. I think, Robin, you were here for the debate on the renewable heat incentive. I was, like other Members, very energised by the way the scheme was operated. It is clear there are a number of flaws and fault lines in that scheme. I have pressed back hard on officials in relation to how we are going to rectify this problem. I do not want to make an allocation for it now, but I am preparing for an allocation if that is necessary. We need to study this carefully, but we also need to act rather swiftly because until we rectify the problem it will continue to gather pace.
Of all the issues we address in the time ahead, getting a handle on this renewable heat incentive is absolutely vital. In England they got a handle on it when it was thought there was going to be an overspend. I look forward to my colleague Simon Hamilton's proposals. He is equally energised about this issue and is focused on finding a resolution and coming to the Assembly, and to me, as early as possible, with a strategy for dealing with the problem. It is not a secret to Members, because we did discuss it at length, that it has not been a well-run scheme. I look forward to Minister Hamilton bringing forward his proposals.
Mrs S Bradley: First, I, like others, have obviously not had sufficient time to read the report in great detail. I welcome some of the headline figures, particularly the news that there will be funding for roads. I will be watching carefully to see how that funding is allocated regionally. I know in particular there is a need in south Down for more tarmac —
Mrs S Bradley: Certainly, yes.
I also welcome funding for Waterways Ireland. Until now there has been a real danger of some of the cross-border bodies withering on the vine because they have not had adequate funding or support. The Minister did comment that he has had —
Mrs S Bradley: Yes, thank you.
He mentioned that, during frank discussions with the Executive, some projects may have to be set aside. Given the renewed commitment to cross-border bodies, I hope the Minister can give an assurance that Narrow Water bridge project has not been set aside. Given his commitment to cross-border projects, he could give that assurance to the people of south Down.
Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that it should be a question to the Minister and not a statement. I ask Members to make their questions brief.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank Ms Bradley for her question. She is right to focus on rural roads — those of us from Belfast are accused occasionally of forgetting that there is anywhere outside the city limits — so I intend to do that. You are fortunate in that I think that Chris Hazzard does not live too far away, so he can certainly visit and view those roads with you.
In terms of Waterways Ireland, I think that part of the Ulster canal may be in your constituency. I am happy to visit it and to look at it with you to see how we might progress that project. That is another example of a project that has been around for too long and that we, as Governments, have not delivered on, yet it is a transformational project. In fact, as Jeffrey Donaldson reminded me, if we can get from Belfast to Lough Neagh and then to the Shannon, we will have a new all-island highway, or an old highway reopened. I am with you on that entirely.
It is a statement of intent, and I, of course, have to work with other Ministers. Do I believe that it is to the benefit of all our people, as Sir George Quigley believed, to develop an all-island economy? Yes, I do. Do I believe that communities in the border regions are on the periphery of two economies, yet could be at the centre of an all-island economy? Yes, I do. Do I believe that border communities — I know that you represent some of them — deserve a bigger slice of the peace dividend? Yes, I do. You will find me an ally for any proposals on constructive cross-border cooperation that encourage the all-island economy and encourage cooperation between our communities and peoples in the time ahead.
I remain a fan of the Narrow Water bridge project. As I said to the Committee last week, I generally support bridge building; it is a good way of moving forward. I saw that project before I was returned to the House, and I will be working with you and with other Members to realise the dream of having a bridge at Narrow Water. The work starts. It is not, of course, with my Department, but you can be sure that I think that that project is a priority, and I hope to see it realised in the time ahead. In the House, "the time ahead" sometimes can mean a long time, but I hope that we can get stuck into that project.
Mr Dickson: Minister, thank you for your statement. I want to return to the renewable heat incentive. Can you give us an assurance that that matter, regardless of the sums involved, will be dealt with directly by the Executive rather than being left to the Department for the Economy, the sole role of which should be to transform our economy and which should not be burdened in that respect? Will he give the House an absolute assurance that that matter will be dealt with directly by the Executive?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for his question. You were in for the debate earlier this year. It is one of the most vital and pressing issues that we face and it is the right decision to move it to the centre. I look forward to seeing the proposals. It will be our friends in the energy section of the former DETI who will deal with it — they are dealing with it daily. It is a crucial and vital question.
We will move to allocate it to the centre if necessary. You can take it that, wherever it sits, it is a priority for me to get a handle on it and make sure that we have a solution.
Mr Aiken: I apologise for not having had the chance to go through the statement forensically as the Minister knows that I would have liked to have done, but there are a couple of questions to which I would quite like answers if he has the opportunity to do so.
Despite the increase of £25 million, much of which will go to restoring part of the issues to do with the skills shortage in Northern Ireland, I note from the ring-fenced resource DEL that there is a reduction of £34·2 million. Again, we have not seen those figures, and we would like to see the reasoning behind them fairly soon. On the second issue, I would particularly like —
Mr Aiken: In that case, I shall sit down. Thank you.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: It is a matter of great disappointment that you have had 15 minutes and have not forensically examined all those figures, Mr Aiken, because I know that you are well capable of it. I do not have the full reasons for that fall. I did not realise that there was a fall. I am not sure which Department you are referring to, but I am happy to discuss that with you.
Overall, I think it is a good monitoring round. Many of the issues that have been raised by the Opposition since I came here are addressed as well. Those issues are priorities for the Government parties, but the reality is that some of the big issues we have addressed were raised by colleagues in the Opposition parties yesterday. We can all stand over that. Your priorities are addressed in this monitoring round, and I think that is a reason to welcome it. There will be an opportunity, with individual Ministers or with me, if you wish, to go through each reason for slippage or underspend. There are all sorts of reasons for that, and some of them can be very genuine. Welfare mitigations have not moved ahead as swiftly as we thought, thank God; so there is some money being returned to the centre. There are some Barnett consequentials as well. When I went back to Departments and asked why they had not spent money, it did not seem to be through inefficiency; there seemed to be other factors at play. It was, in my view, justifiable and correct that they should surrender the money for reallocation. I am happy to pore over the figures with you at a later date.
Ms Mallon: The Minister has made much reference to the importance of delivering on actions and I welcomed the fact that he said yesterday that housing is a priority for him. Considering that there are 40,000 households on the waiting list, 22,000 of which are in housing stress, how many affordable and social homes will be built from this allocation? For our most vulnerable people, a roof over your head is important but also, critically important, are wrap-around services. Where is the funding for projects like Supporting People and the housing first model?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Stephen Farry's glass was half-full. Ms Mallon, I think your glass is about a third-full. There was no indication, in any of the media reports before this announcement, that there would be anything here.
One of my esteemed colleagues in the Alliance Party talked about the unravelling of budgets. Mr Attwood talked yesterday about bringing urgent statements to the House regarding the Budget situation. In fact, this is a very positive outcome across Departments and, in particular, for co-ownership housing. We need to come up with more ways to spend this financial transaction capital but we have managed, and I have said this candidly to Members, to find £5·5 million for the co-ownership scheme. That will be for social and affordable homes. It is not the preference of everyone. It may not suit some of the people we are talking about, but it is my intention, and we talked about priorities, to provide the funding where I can do so, or ensure that we can find ways to raise money or borrow in a prudent fashion against a revenue delivering project, to build the homes that we need.
Before the election, Sinn Féin committed to building 10,000 new homes, but even that is not enough. As I said yesterday, you cannot have a family if you do not have a home. The figures and the level of housing stress and homelessness are really worrying and are an indictment of our society. We need to make a start in tackling it. That is why I welcomed the £280 million from the European Investment Bank (EIB) last week for two of our housing associations — Apex and Choice I think. That is why I will make housing a priority. If the Minister for Communities comes to me with other proposals about enhancing support for the homeless and those seeking homes, I will be very sympathetic. Nothing is more important. Nothing is a greater test of our ability and efficiency as a Government than delivering homes.
We have made some progress: £5·5 million is not enough, and the Member can work out for herself what she thinks that will deliver in terms of homes and the cost of them. The sum of £280 million from the EIB is not enough. We need to find a way of allowing the Housing Executive to borrow off balance sheet so that it can get on with what it is good at, which is building houses and making them available to families. So, if she wants to prioritise housing, especially housing the homeless, I suggest that she brings that, robustly, to the Minister for Communities. She will find me an ally with a very sympathetic ear. If she works in concert with the Minister for Communities on housing, she will find that I will be very supportive in doing what we can to ease housing need.
Mrs Dobson: I, also, thank the Minister for his statement and, like others, welcome the additional £72 million being allocated to the Department of Health. Equally, I welcome the realisation from the Minister that this does not address the underlying issues. He will remember that I touched on this yesterday. What guarantees can the Minister give that our health service has the capacity to use these additional multi-million pound allocations? Also, the statement lacks clarity on what the £67 million resource —
Mrs Dobson: — and £5 million capital will be used for. Can the Minister break it down for us?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank Mrs Dobson for prioritising and focusing on health again, and reiterating what everyone is saying, which is that while this additional money is very welcome — it brings to £200 million the extra amount we have allocated to health this year — money alone is not the solution.
I have honoured some of the commitments made by Simon Hamilton, the outgoing Minister, to the health service. I have worked with my officials and Health Department officials to make sure that every penny of this is used. I will not be pleased if any Department comes back and says, "The money that we bid for in June monitoring, we didn't or couldn't use". That would be a bad marker to put down with me, because we really made sure the bids were realistic. We really worked hard with other Ministers and officials to make sure that the money really was needed and will be used.
In terms of how it will be used, there is demand for unscheduled care. New and unplanned attendances at emergency departments have increased, as you know and highlighted, since 2014-15. Funding is therefore required in a number of areas to improve patient care and unscheduled care, including winter pressures, as well as capacity expansion on acute sites and staffing in emergency departments. Key aspects of the social care system remain under significant pressure in 2016-17, with additional investment required in domiciliary care in the statutory and independent sectors, as well as in children's services, learning disability and psychological therapies. This allocation will help to address front-line pressures and improve patient flow. I am happy to meet you to talk in more detail about where that is going, and I am sure that Minister Michelle O'Neill will be as well.
I will say what I said on housing: please highlight health. It is not my Department but, as with housing, I want to remain an ally and advocate for wise and prudent spending that delivers better outcomes in health.
Mr McGlone: Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí den Aire cá mhéad den chaiteachas sna hearnálacha éagsúla, thar na tréimhsí áirithe, a thagann ón Aontas Eorpach. How much of the total amounts in all key spending areas is sourced from the EU?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt don Chomhalta as an cheist sin. Bhí tú sa Chathaoir mhór aréir; anois tá tú arais i measc na dtuataí. Tá a fhios agam cá bhfuil tú ag gabháil leis an cheist sin, agus molaim an treo ina bhfuil tú ag gabháil fosta. Tá tú ag iarraidh fíricí. Baineann an caiteachas seo leis na Ranna s’againne amháin; seo caiteachas s’againne. Gan amhras, áfach, cuirfear airgead ón Eoraip leis sin. Sílim go bhfuil €280 milliún ag SEUPB agus thart faoi €270 milliún ag INTERREG.
I welcome the Member's question. I know and applaud where he is going on the question. This is our departmental expenditure, but European funds are essential to the delivery of services. The Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), and Members might correct me, provides, I think, around €280 million, and INTERREG provides around €260 million. Without that funding, and without referencing Brexit, we would not be able to deliver the vast majority of the projects that I know you are interested in, for example in rural and border areas.
This is our commitment to the kitty, but without European funds we would not be able to deliver the services that are so vital to our people. So, your resolve, like mine, is to make sure that on 24 June those funds are still available.
Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for his statement, but I must say that I find the new format unhelpful. Like others, I am concerned about the lack of transparency. I believe it is healthy to be aware of the bids, choices and pressures that were there. Can the Minister advise whether there were bids to, for instance, provide additional capital funding to improve health centres — there is an issue with those in my constituency — or, in education resource funding, to address some of the effective cuts to our schools? Were there any unsuccessful bids, and will the Minister publish all the bids?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for his question. The bids in my negotiations and discussions with ministerial colleagues are, of course, confidential. What I can say is this: you always find at your first meeting with Ministers that they want the earth, the moon and the stars, but we had realistic discussions very early on. This is a new style of government. I do not think it would have been to the benefit of any health centre, school or community project to have unrealistic bids trawled for a month through Committees, exercising all types of commentary and speculation, when it is much better, in my view, to have a Government of common purpose, focused on a holistic response to all the pressures facing us, making realistic bids to me, discussing those with me and understanding what their sister Departments need. That has never happened before, because before, of course, in the five-party Government, it was every man and every woman for themselves.
What I can say is that every Minister — that includes not only DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers but Claire Sugden, the Minister of Justice — left content and realising that, although they would love more money and there is more they want to do, there is not enough money in the pot. As you said, some people made a strong case on issues that were of particular interest to them but that we could not meet at this time, so I will return to those discussions with ministerial colleagues in the time ahead. This streamlined, efficient style of government will make sure that we deliver the type of projects you are talking about in the time ahead.
Mr Kennedy: I welcome the Minister's statement. Whilst the allocations to the Department for Infrastructure are welcome, will the Minister take steps to address the stop-start nature of funding to address road repairs and defects in structural maintenance? Will he undertake to put in place proper financial planning and a proper system to ensure that adequate funds are allocated at the earliest point so that contractors and the road construction industry can properly plan and road maintenance is no longer treated as a political Cinderella?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank Mr Kennedy for that question. I would have thought that you left a fairly healthy budget to Minister McIlveen. Now it is coming to me. If stop-start had not been part of the Department's approach, it will certainly not be part of my approach. I agree with you entirely. I want to deliver on those projects not only for the construction industry but for those who want to see projects, some of which, Mr Kennedy, some may say were stop-start under your tenure — the A5 and the A6 for example. There is very bold ambition on the A5 and the A6, and I want to deliver on them in a strategic fashion. There are always difficulties. There may be a planning inquiry here or a difficulty there, but I agree with you entirely: there needs to be a cogent, forceful, passionate approach to building up the road infrastructure that we need. Our people who use the roads need that; our economy needs that; and our construction industry needs that.
I will say finally that, although the majority of money that I have allocated in this monitoring round is to do with road maintenance and so on, occasionally, with respect to the A5 and the A6, people who meet me talk about the north-west city region of Derry — Londonderry, as you would say, Mr Kennedy — and how they need to get to Belfast, Dublin or wherever. What is really clear when you visit Derry, as I did last week, when I met the Donegal County Council CEO as well, is that the contribution they will make to the wider economy of Derry and Donegal through a proper transport infrastructure will help all our people right across the country. It is the enabling of their contribution to us that will be the real genius of the A5 and the A6. I know that not as much progress was made on it under your tenure as perhaps you would have liked, but we make a commitment here that we will deliver in a consistent, informed, strategic fashion the road infrastructure our people need and our economy requires.
Mr Agnew: The Minister previously made reference to the benefits of the social investment fund, as he sees them. Does he share my concern, however, that there are those receiving SIF funding who wear the air of respectability by day but direct criminality by night — people who, by night, cause community tensions and, by day, seek funding to resolve them? What will the Minister do to ensure that public funding is withdrawn where evidence of such practice exists?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: You will note that I made an allocation towards strategies to end paramilitarism. I know that all Members will join me in this, but I doubt that there is anyone in the House who endorses or condones paramilitary activity. I know that there have been a series of worrying problems in your constituency and a concern on the part of ordinary people that the spectre of paramilitarism still lingers. You can take it from me: I stand four-square behind the community of North Down, of South Belfast and of every constituency in facing down the paramilitaries. However, I also want to say that I have worked with former paramilitary leaders in Sandy Row in South Belfast, and they have kept every commitment that they made to me. They have kept the peace every time that I have asked them to do so, and every engagement that I have had with them has been respectful. I believe that they are committed to the path of peace and building up their communities, and I will stand with them.
If Mr Agnew or anyone else has evidence against anyone involved in any of our programmes — I am not sure about singling out the social investment fund, as we spend money right across the piece — they should bring it to the PSNI and demand rapid and effective action against paramilitarism. We have come too far to let anyone drag us back. I will set aside your singling out of the social investment fund — if there is a project that you want to bring to the attention of the police or the authorities, please do so — but, that to the side, I stand with you in making sure that we have a society free of paramilitary influence.
Mr Allister: The Minister is anxious to impress with the speed with which he brought the statement to the House. It is certainly quicker than last year. We never had a June monitoring round, and we all know the reason for that: it was because Sinn Féin was involved in a sham fight for welfare before it rolled over —
Mr Allister: I want to ask the Minister specifically about a matter in table four. Now that he is a custodian and not just a spender of public finance, is he satisfied that it is good value for money to have sold 621 acres at Shackleton for £1 million? Was that value for money for the taxpayer?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank Mr Allister — go raibh maith agat. This is the can't-do corner. It is not even a corner; it is only a small redoubt in the Assembly. I do not mind people who say "You can't do". Most of the Opposition say to me, "You can do. You can do more, and you can do it faster and more efficiently", but it is refreshing to have a can't-do corner. Every time I hear from the can't-do corner, I will respond as positively as I can, because eventually, the can do — as proved by 107 Members — outnumbers, outshines and overshadows the can't do.
On Shackleton, obviously, I did not sell it; I have only been in post for two and a half weeks. If you believe that it was not value for money and you believe that what is proposed is not to the benefit of all our people, raise that issue and bring it to us. I want to see us move from a society that had symbols of division and the past at every turn to a better, more prosperous place. I am not sure that you want to be there, Mr Allister; I think that you would be very comfortable in the past. For today, this is a monitoring round about the future. This is a can-do monitoring round. Will it be tested? Will there be challenges? Of course there will. This is not the be-all and end-all, but it is a step forward — [Interruption.]
I understand that you would like to come back: you will have plenty of opportunities to come back, because we will be here for a while.
Mr E McCann: The Minister said earlier that we are all in this together. This is a phrase that, in recent years, has been mainly associated with Mr David Cameron, who repeats it at every occasion. As he puts the boot into the poor, he assures them, "We are all in this together".
Mr E McCann: Yes, indeed. I want to put that together with the Minister's suggestion that there are two vice chancellors in the North. He said that there is one in Belfast for Queen's and one in Derry. That is not true.
Mr E McCann: Will the Minister give an assurance now that the management of the University of Ulster has no need for, and should call to a halt, the redundancy programme that is closing courses and getting rid of lecturers at Magee? How can we listen to all the promises about the expansion of Magee when what they are actually doing is contracting Magee?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I do not know whether there is a "can't-do" corner, but there is the "can't-hear" corner. I mentioned British Prime Minister Cameron's reference that we are all in this together to denounce it and say clearly that it is a lie and a canard. That is why I used the expression; I did not do so to endorse it. You have to listen to the entire sentence and the one before and the one after, but you can check the Hansard report.
I went to Magee last week because I wanted to state clearly at this early stage what I was told by the chief executive of Derry and Strabane District Council, the chief executive of Donegal County Council, the business community, the Chamber of Commerce and others I met before I left the city, and vice chancellor Paddy Nixon, namely that the entire success in the future of what I am happy to call "the north-west city region of Derry" hinges on the success of the University of Ulster campus at Magee. I am happy to see that numbers there have increased. I am a big advocate — I have said this to my colleague and friend, the vice chancellor of Queen's University — of anthropology, the Irish language and history. I have a degree in two of those three subjects, though not a very good one, and I would like to see, and I have said this to all those involved in our universities, those particular disciplines grow in the time ahead as well as other disciplines. The way to grow our universities is to provide funding. We have done that today. I do not know if the Member heard — maybe he missed it — but we have just provided £20 million to make the type of investment that Dr Farry called for.
That the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill [NIA 01/16-21] be agreed.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-Leas-Cheann Comhairle as an sos. Thank you for the break. This Second Stage debate follows the approval of the Supply resolution by the Assembly for the expenditure plans of Departments and other public bodies as detailed in the 2016-17 Main Estimates. That happened in time for the second half of the Ireland and Sweden game, which was a good result, as today's monitoring round has been.
As Members will undoubtedly be aware, accelerated passage of the Bill is necessary to ensure Royal Assent prior to the end of July. There were some concerns expressed earlier about the urgent process we use for monitoring rounds, but I am grateful, perhaps even more so because of that, that the Committee granted accelerated passage for the Bill. If the Bill did not proceed by accelerated passage and receive Assembly approval before the summer recess, Departments and other public bodies could have legislative difficulty in accessing cash, which would threaten the effective delivery of public services prior to our return to the Chamber in September.
I am glad to note, however, that the Bill can be given accelerated passage, because the Committee for Finance has confirmed that, in line with Standing Order 42, it is satisfied that there has been appropriate consultation with it on the public expenditure proposals contained in it. That is an example of opposition and government working together. I hope that we see more of that. I thank the Committee for its work in agreeing to accelerated passage.
The Bill's main purpose is to make further provision of cash and resources for use on services, in addition to the Vote on Account provided in the Budget Act that was passed by the Assembly in February, up to the requirements of Departments and other public bodies set out in the Main Estimates for 2016-17. Copies of the Budget (No. 2) Bill and the explanatory and financial memorandum have been made available to Members today. The 2016-17 Main Estimates and the Statement of Excess 2014-15 were laid in the Assembly on 1 June 2016.
The Bill will authorise the issue of a further £7,986,369,200 from the Consolidated Fund and the further use of resources totalling £8,693,136,600 by the Departments and certain other bodies listed in schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill. The cash and resources are to be spent and used on the services listed in column 1 of each schedule. Of course, those amounts are in addition to the Vote on Account passed by the Assembly in February, bringing the total amount of cash provided for 2016-17 to over £15 billion. In addition, the Bill sets for the current financial year a limit for each Department on the use of accruing resources — current and capital receipts — totalling £2,340,215,000. Therefore, the resources authorised by the Assembly in the Vote on Account in February and the resources and accruing resources now provided in the Bill bring the total resources for use by Departments in 2016-17 to over £19 billion. Of course, those amounts of resource include not only the departmental expenditure limits (DELs), on which our Budget process mainly focuses, but departmental demand-led annually managed expenditure (AME).
Clause 2 provides for the temporary borrowing by my Department of £3,993,184,000. That is approximately half the sum authorised by clause 1 for issue out of the Consolidated Fund. I must stress to the Assembly that clause 2 does not provide for the issue of any additional cash out of the Consolidated Fund or convey any additional spending power, but it enables my Department to run an effective and efficient cash-management regime and ensure minimum drawdown on our block grant on a daily basis. That is very important when contemplating the daily borrowing by our Departments.
The Budget (No. 2) Bill authorises £68,328,183 — there is also a very important 78p there — which was used by the Department of Finance and Personnel in 2014-15, and £952,921·37 for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was used in 2014-15 by way of Excess Votes. The need for additional resources for the Department of Finance arose from using an incorrect rate when calculating the interest on the principal Civil Service pension scheme liabilities. The need for additional resources for the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission arose from an inaccurate assessment of the pension liability of the Assembly Members' pension scheme. The Public Accounts Committee has considered both issues and recommended that the Assembly provide the additional resources through an Excess Vote.
In bringing the first Budget Bill of this Assembly mandate, I am making clear my intention to deliver for the people whom we represent. The expenditure being approved in the Bill will see investment in high-quality public services and, most importantly, a commitment to oppose the austerity programme being driven by the Westminster Government. I aim to work with all our local communities to create a prosperous shared society and to help grow a stronger economy with opportunity for all. This Budget will serve our people well. I am proud that, with this Budget Bill, we are delivering the most generous welfare protection in these islands. I am proud that, with this Budget Bill, we are continuing to block the Westminster Government's bedroom tax. I am proud that, with this Budget Bill, we are preventing the imposition of water charges. I am proud that, with this Budget Bill, we are keeping university fees for our students affordable.
As I made clear in the Supply resolution debate yesterday, I will be taking every opportunity to continue to oppose austerity. I am meeting the Finance Ministers of Wales and Scotland tomorrow and Thursday to fight collectively for enhanced fiscal powers that will allow us to make decisions in the interests of all our people rather than have decisions imposed on us. I have sought an urgent meeting with Chancellor Osborne to drive that agenda forward.
It might be hard to translate the figures that the Bill that we are considering today contains into real-world public services. However, it is important to emphasise — some members of the Opposition mentioned health centres earlier — that every doctor and teacher, every road improvement, every hospital and every public service provided for under the authority of the Assembly is affected by the Bill. It requires legislation to operate legally in this financial year. I think that this is probably the fourth time that we have had an opportunity to talk about our funding priorities. It is crucial legislation for our public services. Ba mhaith liom an Bille seo a mholadh. Is féidir go mbeidh díospóireacht thintrí againn air seo, ach tá a fhios agam go bhfuilimid uile ar son leas an phobail.
I look forward to the debate. I know that it may be heated at times, but I believe, even though we divide between Opposition and Government, that everyone in the House is united in wanting to see a better society and that this Budget is the bedrock of that.
On that note, I conclude. I will be happy to deal with any points of principle or detail of the Budget Bill that Members may wish to raise.
Mrs Little Pengelly (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): I speak first in my role as Chair of the Finance Committee. As already outlined, the Bill makes provision for the balance of cash and resources required to reflect the departmental spending plans in the 2016-17 Main Estimates. These are based on the Executive’s one-year Budget for 2016-17, which was approved by the Assembly in February.
As outlined, the Bill also includes provision for excess cash and resource requirements by the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission and the Department of Finance, and we touched on that in yesterday's debate. The Committee noted that this matter has been considered by the Comptroller and Auditor General and reported on by the Public Accounts Committee, which recommended that the necessary sums be provided by Excess Vote in the Assembly.
As on previous occasions, the Department of Finance has highlighted the need for the Bill to progress through the Assembly before summer recess. In that regard, at its meeting last week, the Committee agreed to grant accelerated passage to the Bill under Standing Order 42(2), on the basis of having been consulted appropriately on the expenditure provisions in the Bill; and I wrote to the Speaker to confirm that decision.
There was positive engagement with the Minister during his first appearance before the Committee last week, and I hope that that sets the tone for further meetings. I, in my role as Chair, and the members of the Committee, will scrutinise the work and hold the Minister to account, and, if he is found wanting, we will call him out on that. However, we want to have a constructive working relationship with the Department. It was evident, during the Minister’s evidence session, that there is some common ground, most notably in the need to consider the regional economic impact of the Budget over the coming years. I believe that we all share the view that local needs and circumstances have to be taken into account and respected.
Therefore, as we move forward in this mandate, it is critical that all Departments engage constructively with their Assembly Committees, particularly in relation to budgetary matters. The provision of this information is important, for both the Finance Committee’s cross-cutting scrutiny role and the role of all Statutory Committees in monitoring progress at a departmental level. The role of the Assembly Committees in scrutinising spending and monitoring savings, as well as service delivery, will continue to increase in importance, given the budgetary challenges that we will inevitably face. Thorough scrutiny can add real value to the Budget process in that regard.
At tomorrow’s meeting, the Committee for Finance will consider how we, as a Committee, can look to shape and influence the process on the forthcoming Budget for 2017-20.
In terms of the immediate business before us, however, and on behalf of the Committee for Finance, I support the general principles of the Bill.
As a DUP Member, I welcome the Minister moving swiftly on with the core business of finance. I welcome the level of agreement across the Northern Ireland Executive, as that is both necessary and critical if we are to tackle the key challenges that we face. I know that the Minister understands the urgency and importance of those issues.
We heard from some Members — I see that Stephen Farry is still in his seat — during the election that they stood under the banner of "Forward. Faster."; it seems now to be "Forward. Slower.". Sometimes, there is a sense from Opposition Members that they want to slow things down. However, I know that the Minister agrees with me that delivery is key, and we are determined to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. The multi-year Budget will be the core opportunity and foundation if we are to meet the key commitments in the draft Programme for Government that, with some amendments after consultation, should become the Programme for Government. If we are to make those commitments a reality, finance and the Budget will be the foundation. Therefore, although sometimes these things can seem a little dry and dull, they underpin absolutely everything that we do in government, and they are critically important.
There is a new outcomes- and impact-focused approach outlined in the Programme for Government. It must also happen, I think, that we take a different approach to our processes and how we deal with the Budget. I know that the Committee will consider this in the next number of months as we move towards those Budget discussions.
We have heard some discussion in the Chamber about the social investment fund, for example, which is having a positive impact on the ground. The Minister outlined some of the fantastic projects in Belfast South. I know that that is common across Northern Ireland. Employability South employs hundreds of people, and fantastic capital builds are supporting communities in need — communities that, perhaps, could not access funds previously. Yet, the social investment fund gets a hard time from certain parties and Members. I have talked to the Minister about this, and the difficulty and slowness with the social investment fund is not that there is a lack of agreement about what we want to achieve. There was commonality: we wanted to help communities; we wanted to talk to communities about the problems that they face; and we wanted to listen to them proposing solutions to those problems. That is very much what we did in the social investment fund.
The difficulty related to the business cases processes and procurement. I have spoken to the Minister. If a Department has a policy, but it takes years to go through the processes, those processes are not meeting the need, not delivering for the Northern Ireland Executive and, more critically, not delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. The Minister and the Committee are keen to look at this and ask, "How do we change not only the way that we do business in the Northern Ireland Executive but our processes and systems in order to produce better results for the people of Northern Ireland?". That is a huge piece of work. It is about public-sector transformation and doing things differently, but there is a commitment to do that. I look forward to working with the Minister on that important work.
Mr Smith: Yesterday, the Minister and his colleagues in the DUP referred to the Ulster Unionist Party as:
"the enabler of austerity" [Official Report (Hansard), 13 June 2016, p58, col 1].
because of its electoral relationship with the Conservative Party two elections ago. I will give a quick reminder for those with a short memory — a bit of a history lesson. Under Prime Ministers Blair and Brown, the Labour Party racked up, by 2009-2010, an annual Budget deficit of £170 billion. Proportionally, that is higher than when we required the IMF's assistance in 1978. You will, of course, remember the infamous quote from the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne:
"I'm afraid there is no money."
That, of course, left the coalition Government with the task of moving the country away from bankruptcy by reducing public-sector debt as a percentage of GDP and adopting a fiscal model that would balance the books. Whilst we disagree with many of the Westminster Government's spending priorities and policies, we do not wish to see Northern Ireland emulate the disastrous New Labour policy of borrow and spend, especially to cover revenue shortfalls rather than making capital investment. It is the Government equivalent of using the mortgage to pay for a shopping spree and a few good nights out.
In yesterday's debate, Mr Storey said that there was no "money tree" in Stormont. I hope that the Minister took that point on board. I believe that there are a number of actions that the Minister could implement to instil greater confidence in his borrowing and spending intentions. First, will the Minister echo the commitment in the 2016-17 Budget:
"The 2016-17 Budget is predicated on the full drawdown of available RRI borrowing. However, given the need to be mindful of the overall level of indebtedness that results from RRI borrowing, the Executive will consider mechanisms for capping RRI borrowing ... This will ensure that the overall level of borrowing remains within manageable limits."?
Secondly, will the Minister provide an update on the commitment in Fresh Start to establish:
"an independent fiscal council for Northern Ireland.",
especially its commitment:
"to prepare an annual assessment of the Executive's revenue streams and spending proposals"?
Thirdly, does the Minister agree that the UK Government's previous statement that they would legislate to ensure:
"the Assembly cannot consider spending plans which exceed the Block Grant or the Northern Ireland Executive's borrowing limits",
makes any plans to increase borrowing dependent on Treasury approval?
Yesterday, the Minister and others said that they wanted proposals from the Opposition, although the attitude of the Executive to date in providing information and facilitating the opposition process suggests otherwise. However, there are certainly potential areas for revenue generation.
Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. His introductory remarks show that whilst you can take the UUP out of UCUNF, you cannot necessarily take UCUNF out of the UUP. With regard to the way in which the information is being provided, the Member will be aware that, in Westminster — the system that the Ulster Unionists tell us that they want us to move towards in the House — Budgets are provided, and Jeremy Corbyn gets the equivalent of an hour to respond to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Member has been given much more information and much more time than that to respond.
Mr Smith: I thank the Member for his intervention. I believe that the resources and how opposition is facilitated in Westminster is fundamentally different from what is on the cards here. That needs to change, or we will not have the effective government that we need in this country. That is something that needs to be improved.
As I said, the Minister and others said that they wanted proposals from opposition. I have a few that he can maybe review in due course. First, the asset management unit in the Strategic Investment Board has calculated that the Executive had over 1,100 hectares of industrial land on their books, little of which has been disposed of in recent years. Secondly, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive also holds significant amounts of land: 500 surplus and nearly 300 underdeveloped hectares, both of which could be considered for further divestment. Thirdly, we could bring forward a cull of arm's-length bodies or quangos, as was agreed in 2011 but, surprisingly, since forgotten, especially as they are now under the auspices of more streamlined Departments, which should facilitate that change. Fourthly, we could focus on reducing administration costs in Departments, as six of the outgoing Departments have increased their spend since 2011.
Overall, as I said yesterday, the Budget challenges are exacerbated by the failure of the previous Executive to reform and to drive change. Of course, some change has happened — the reduction in the number of Departments, for example — and I welcome that, but, to date, too little has been done to free up the resources needed to target our key front-line services.
Mr McElduff, Chair of the Education Committee, rattled off a number of figures relating to education yesterday. From memory, I think that he talked about £35 million coming in for pensions and £20 million more in the monitoring round process. Bearing in mind how little notice we had today, I would be keen to get Mr McElduff's lottery numbers for the weekend, because he could predict what was coming out today. He also talked about pressures that education faced. He talked about £1,000 per teacher for National Insurance increases and a further £10 million pressure for every 1% rise in teachers' pay. The key question I have is this: what is the net impact on our schools? We have heard about the increases today — I welcome them — but when will heads know what their real budgets are and be able to plan the delivery of education for the next school year?
The health budget continues to grow as a percentage of our total Budget. In 2010, it was 42%, and now it is over 47% of the overall funding pie. We know that reform is needed as well as investment, although I was surprised yesterday at how Mr Storey again couched some comments about opposition parties on the issue. From memory, I think that he asked us whom we wanted to sack as part of the change process; I do not believe that that is a measure of anybody's commitment. I do not want to sack any doctor, nurse or health professional, but I want change in how we deliver our health service. That is a very different approach. The £67 million that the Minister announced today is very welcome, but, as he says himself, it does not address the underlying issues.
I may have misheard the Minister during yesterday's debate, but I thought that he said that Northern Ireland would be better off outside the UK. I assume that I was hearing things, as I cannot believe that anyone would be able to make that case when we still require a £9 billion subvention from Westminster. We all wish, obviously, that that was not so, but I look forward to the Minister maybe detailing his proposals to reduce our dependence on the wider UK public purse.
There was also much comment yesterday about corporation tax and its reduction. We all know that it is a key policy to transform our economy. I heard commitments from the Minister — Mr Murphy and others commented as well — stating that all would be fine and we were just working out the details and getting the best deal. Does the Minister believe that potential investors will understand those subtleties, or does he share my concern that we are, at best, sending mixed messages?
The Minister also said that he would be creative in borrowing, asking whether we had ideas to allow the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to borrow off balance sheet and pay off via rents. The Minister asked for positivity, and I am happy to be positive on the issue. The potential should be explored. The Housing Executive should be reclassified to allow it to borrow money and build its own homes rather than relying entirely on housing associations. It could borrow against its assets of 90,000 houses and the income stream of £280 million a year.
It is estimated that £6 billion is required over the next 30 years to upgrade our housing stock to a minimum standard. Also, the Housing Executive said that refinancing £410 million of historical debt at cheaper interest rates could release additional funds for investment. I see potential there, and I am more than happy to work in partnership to drive that forward if that is a suggestion the Minister wants to proceed with.
It is my belief that the Budget does not meet the needs of Northern Ireland and is a symptom of inaction and failure to reform in the previous nine years. That is the critical point: the Executive failed to change and failed to reform, resulting in today's financial pressures, which are leading to a deteriorating service, despite the monitoring round additions today. The Budget just highlights the scale of reform and change still required. As I said yesterday, it is using sticking plasters to cover major financial wounds. We will oppose it.
Mr O'Dowd: I welcome that we are here today discussing the Budget (No. 2) Bill, which is further proof that we have a fresh start, that politics in this society can change and are changing and that the Executive are up for delivering public services in very difficult financial circumstances. That is when you prove yourself, and that is when politicians and leaders have to prove themselves — in the most difficult of circumstances. It would be easy to be in an Executive or in government during good financial times or under the financial management of a Government who were not wedded to austerity, but our leaders in the Executive have set themselves a task, and I believe that task can be delivered, even though it presents many obstacles.
In most Parliaments, a Budget Bill contains not only the spending plans of that Government or Executive but their tax-varying powers. That is what is missing from our fiscal process — tax-varying powers. That presents a challenge to politics in this society.
Mr O'Dowd: I will in a moment. Those who formed the Opposition or Oppositions told us they were doing so because they wanted to normalise politics and to bring greater normality to our political system. I do not believe that was their motivation, but that was their statement of intent: they were going to normalise politics. Then I think that, if we are going to normalise politics in this society, we have to normalise it in its totality. We, as elected legislators, have to take on the responsibility of fiscal authority over our society.
Before I move on, I give way to Mr Agnew.
Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for giving way. He refers to tax-varying powers, and, of course, to date any powers we have or have sought have been to reduce taxation and reduce the income for public services. Is the Member looking for more tax-varying powers to introduce more cuts to public services?
Mr O'Dowd: No. I deliberately used the term "varying". Any Government coming forward with a Budget would present their tax-varying powers on how they propose to raise taxation to deliver the services they believe to be important. We have Governments in Dublin and in Westminster that raise taxation to deliver public services in a limited way. I believe we can collect taxes in varying ways to support our public services, not to cut them. There is a challenge for the Government and the Administration in that.
I will give you an example. As I was driving down to the Assembly today, I was thinking this: what taxes am I paying today? Some commentators may doubt that politicians actually pay taxes, but we do. When I got up this morning, I went downstairs and turned on the kettle. That is automatically a tax: you are taxed on your energy. Thankfully, when I filled the kettle with water, I was not paying a tax, because the Executive have blocked taxes on our water. I sat down and looked at the messages on my phone. I am paying VAT on my phone. I have no control of that whatsoever, as a legislator, as a citizen or in the Executive.
My children were getting ready and watching TV. I count the TV licence as a tax: we have no control, authority or power over that tax. I had my breakfast, I left the house and I got into my car. I pay vehicle excise duty on my car: we have no control or authority over that tax. I turned on the engine. I pay fuel duty: we have no control or authority over that. I pay VAT on new tyres and parts for the car: we have no control over that. When I come into my place of work, I pay income tax, National Insurance and pension contributions: we have no control over that. Yet we are standing here today voting on a Budget Bill as legislators.
Folks, that is the challenge for us going forward. All those taxes and levies are placed on us by the Westminster Government. Can we use them in a different way? Should we raise some of them? A Government govern largely in two ways: legislation and taxation. That is how you set society on a pathway. The classic example is taxation on tobacco products. Governments across Europe decided, rightly, to place heavy taxation on tobacco products to persuade people to give up smoking for health reasons. That is a classic, blunt example. However, if we as governors and legislators want to start making changes here, we will have to take on the mantle of not only spending tax but governing how and when that tax is raised and what purpose it is used for in alignment with the Programme for Government and our priorities for this society.
The other challenge coming down the road at us in relation to the processes for future Budgets set by the Executive is Brexit. No one knows what the outcome of the vote will be next week, but it is already creating uncertainty in terms of investment and potential investment. If the electorate — largely in England, it would appear, at this stage — votes for Brexit, then we are in a totally different landscape. European funding for this society would disappear over a number of years, and no one knows whether the current British Government or successive British Governments would fill that black hole. Just for the record — Members will know this — £236 million in direct payments for farmers comes from Europe annually and £186 million for rural development. That is only in the rural/agriculture sector. How will the Executive fill that black hole if we vote for Brexit? How will we ensure that European Peace moneys and the other funding that comes into our society continue to be delivered through our budgetary processes? All those things are unknowns and will have impacts moving forward.
There is one thing that is coming at the Executive and employers here next year, and that is the apprenticeship levy, another form of taxation imposed on us by the Westminster Government with little or no consultation and no approval by our Executive that will place a further burden on Executive finances and on private-sector employers. While everyone thinks it admirable that we should promote and invest in apprenticeships, is the apprenticeship levy the best way of doing so? Is the apprenticeship levy a blunt tool that will impact on public services and the private sector? Should that not have been done anyhow through general taxation and a sensible programme run by central government? Of course it should, but yet another levy is being placed on our Executive by the Westminster Government, and that will have a major impact on Budgets moving forward.
In winding up, I welcome the Budget (No. 2) Bill, but, if we want normal, mature politics and if we want to be true legislators, we have to get to the point where we set the taxation base and rate for this society. Not only are we, therefore, collecting revenue but, through the collection of that revenue — how we collect it and where we collect it — we set a pathway for this society and the shape of society that we want going into the future. I support the Bill.