Official Report: Tuesday 25 February 2020
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
That the Second Stage of the Budget Bill [NIA 2/17-22] be agreed.
Today's Second Stage follows yesterday's approval of the Supply resolutions by the Assembly for the expenditure plans of Departments and other public bodies, as detailed in the 2019-2020 spring Supplementary Estimates (SSEs) and the 2021 Vote on Account. As Members will be aware, accelerated passage of the Bill is necessary in order to ensure Royal Assent prior to the end of March. Were the Bill not to proceed by accelerated passage and receive Assembly approval before the end of the financial year, Departments and other public bodies may have legislative difficulty in accessing cash. That would threaten the delivery of public services, not just for the closing weeks of the current financial year but for the early months of the 2020-21 financial year.
I am very grateful to the Finance Committee for confirming that, in line with Standing Order 42, the Bill can proceed under accelerated passage. I thank the Committee for its work in agreeing to accelerated passage. We all recognise that the situation this year has been far from satisfactory, given that the 2019-2020 Budget was set by the Secretary of State rather than the Executive and that the devolved institutions have been restored so close to the end of the financial year.
In the normal course of events, the Committee would have been heavily involved in the setting of the 2019-2020 Budget right from its inception, with the Main Estimates, which would have been debated in the Assembly before the summer, providing the statutory authority for expenditure against the Executive's Budget through each of the in-year monitoring rounds and up to the finalisation and publication of the SSEs and the introduction of the Budget Bill. That programme of work has not been possible in the 2019-2020 year, with the unsatisfactory situation of a Budget being set by the Secretary of State and the Main Estimates being approved in Westminster. The work of the Finance Committee in that respect is vital, and I am glad that a programme of work can now be put in place for the incoming 2020-21 financial year.
Standing Order 32 directs that the Second Stage debate should be confined to the general principles of the Bill, and I shall endeavour to keep to that direction. The main purpose of the Bill is to authorise the cash and use of resource on services based on the Executive's final spending plans for 2019-2020 for Departments and other public bodies as set out in the spring Supplementary Estimates for 2019-2020. The Bill also provides authorisation for the cash and use of resources in the early months of the 2021 financial year as a Vote on Account, pending the Assembly's consideration of the Main Estimates and the Budget (No. 2) Bill in June.
Copies of the Budget Bill and the explanatory and financial memorandum have been made available to Members today, and the 2019-2020 spring Supplementary Estimates and the 2021 Vote on Account were laid in the Assembly on 19 February.
The Bill will authorise a further £17,519,166,000 from the Consolidated Fund and the further use of resources totalling £21,022,321,000 by the Departments and certain other bodies listed in schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill in the year ending 31 March 2020. The cash and resources are to be spent and used on the services listed in column 1 of each schedule. These amounts supersede the amounts that were previously authorised in Westminster through the Main Estimates.
The Bill also sets for the current financial year a limit for each Department on the use of accruing resources. Accruing resources are current and capital receipts totalling £3,213,458,000. The accruing resources are to be spent and used on the services listed in column 1 of schedule 2.
The total resources and accruing resources now provided in the Bill bring the total for use by Departments in 2019-2020 to over £24 billion. In addition, the Bill will authorise the issue of a further £7,962,895,000 from the Consolidated Fund and the further use of resources totalling £9,054,440,000 by Departments and certain other bodies listed in schedules 3 and 4 to the Bill in the year ending 31 March 2021. The cash and resources are to be spent and used on the services listed in column 1 of schedules 3 and 4.
This is the Vote on Account and, as I explained, does not constitute the setting of a Budget for 2020-21. It is merely to allow Departments to continue to operate and provide services in the early months of that year, pending consideration of the Executive's Budget for that year through the Main Estimates and the Budget (No. 2) Bill in June.
While the vast majority of expenditure by all Departments is done on the authority of the statutory powers provided through legislation passed by the Assembly, there are occasionally some — usually small — functions that may from time to time be done on the sole authority of the Budget Act. When a Department is making use of the sole authority of the Budget Act, it will highlight this fact by placing a note with a black box symbol in the corresponding Estimate.
Given that the Main Estimate for 2021 will not be available until June, I want to make the Assembly aware that the Department for Communities is making preparations to extend the existing welfare mitigation schemes. Until Royal Assent is received for the Welfare Supplementary Payments (Loss of Universal Credit or Housing Benefit) Bill and until the Welfare Supplementary Payment Extension Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 have been approved by a resolution of the Assembly, the Department seeks approval to incur spend under the sole authority of the Budget Bill at an estimated cost of £7 million until 31 May 2020.
These amounts of resource include not only the departmental expenditure limits (DEL) on which our Budget process mainly focuses but the departmental demand-led annually managed expenditure (AME). Clause 5 provides for the temporary borrowing by my Department of £3,981,448,000. This is approximately half the sum authorised by clause 4 for issue out of the Consolidated Fund. I must stress that clause 5 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 of the block grant on a daily basis, which is important when contemplating the daily borrowing by Departments.
The legislation is required for every public service. Whether a schoolteacher or a nurse, the building of a road or the training required for gaining a job, all public services need the legislation to operate in the financial year. It is crucial legislation that underpins public services.
I am happy to deal with any points of principle or detail of the Budget Bill that Members may wish to raise.
Mr Speaker: I thank the Minister. The Second Stage of the Budget Bill having been moved, in accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated any time limits on the debate.
Mr Frew (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): The Chair is not able to make it this morning, which is an unfortunate development. I will stand in on his behalf, as any good Deputy Chair would. I have his back. However, I beg forgiveness from the Chamber. It is not very often that I am dictionary-correct when I speak, and I feel that I will be susceptible to error today having just read the speech before me. Please bear with me and give me that wee bit of latitude.
As we have heard, the Budget Bill provides statutory authority for expenditure as set out in the spring Supplementary Estimates for 2019-2020. The Bill also includes the Vote on Account, which allows Departments to incur expenditure and use resources in the early part of 2020-21, until the Main Estimates are voted on by the Assembly in June. Standing Order 42(2) states that accelerated passage may be granted for a Budget Bill, provided that the Committee for Finance is satisfied that it has been appropriately consulted:
"on the public expenditure proposals contained in the Bill".
At the Committee meeting on 19 February, departmental officials provided oral evidence and answered questions on the Budget Bill, including on issues relating to a number of Departments. As the Chairperson pointed out in yesterday’s Supply resolution debate, the scale of the changes resulting from the normal reallocations through monitoring rounds combined with the in-year technical changes will have, in some cases, resulted in significant differences between the opening and closing resource and capital allocations of Departments.
The Committee also noted the Minister’s written statement to the Assembly highlighting late changes of £18 million of resource arising from Barnett consequentials that the Executive agreed to allocate for 2019-2020. For capital, there is a corresponding reduction of some £52 million. That required the Executive to agree to manage this in 2020-2021 since our capital spend is fully committed for this year. During oral evidence, the Committee noted that headroom of £18 million was already factored into the Estimates and, therefore, no change to the spring Supplementary Estimates was necessary. However, perhaps more notable was the late notification of the Barnett consequentials from Her Majesty's Treasury. Officials stated that they were not able to recollect a later time in the financial year when Treasury made changes of such magnitude.
The Committee welcomes the limited engagement with the Department on these issues. However, as the Chairperson mentioned yesterday, in the absence of a functioning Assembly, the level of consultation with the Committee on the public expenditure proposals was far from what the Committee would expect during a conventional Budget cycle. The Committee deliberated on the matter for a considerable time before coming to an agreement to grant accelerated passage to the Budget Bill under the requirements set out in Standing Order 42(2). The Committee took into account the level of consultation that it would expect during a normal Budget cycle; the constraints imposed by the prevailing circumstances; and the adverse impact of withholding authority from Departments to incur the spend on the additional resources that had been granted in-year. Every Committee member who was present expressed dissatisfaction with the process, but, in the end, the Committee came to the conclusion that it could only agree to confirm that the Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, taking full account of the prevailing circumstances and without prejudice to the detailed level of consultation that the Committee will expect on future Budget Bills.
In considering future financial scrutiny, the Committee questioned departmental officials about exploring the process and timescales for forthcoming Budgets. It welcomed their commitment and assurances that views from the Assembly will be sought as early as practicable and that there will be regular and meaningful engagement with Statutory Committees. In particular, the Committee welcomed officials’ acknowledgement of the leading role of the Finance Committee in producing a coordinated report reflecting the considerations of all Statutory Committees.
Over the coming weeks, once the timing of the Budget and Main Estimates is known, the Committee will consider its approach to coordinating Budget scrutiny across Committees in a standard, coherent manner that will help to facilitate Committees in fulfilling their statutory role and responsibilities for Budget scrutiny.
We will, of course, ensure that the relevant Committees are consulted on our intended approach in the early stages of its development.
The Committee also received assurances from officials on the in-year monitoring process, and I am happy to report that the formal practice of departmental bids will be reintroduced to ensure greater transparency in future Budget scrutiny. That will be reflected in the in-year monitoring guidance, which is anticipated to be published by the Department of Finance early in the new financial year.
That leads me on to one aspect of work that will help to support the Assembly's approach to financial scrutiny, which is very much needed in this place. At a time when we are aiming to deliver much-needed reform to our public services, it is absolutely right that, as an Assembly, we look to reform how we undertake our scrutiny, particularly when it comes to public expenditure. We need to move to a more inclusive and collaborative approach that will reform how the Executive and the Assembly interact when the Budget is being developed and scrutinised. We must ensure that the budgetary process becomes meaningful and embraces the role that the Assembly can and should play in influencing and contributing to how public money is spent. We must change the cultural behaviours and attitudes and reform our processes in the same way in which we ask others to accept reforms.
One specific area in bringing about this much-needed reform is through the memorandum of understanding between the Assembly and the Executive. Members from all parties who served on the former Finance and Personnel Committee highlighted that issue over a number of years and budgetary cycles. The aim of the memorandum is to provide solutions to many of the difficulties and flaws in the budgetary process and to establish a framework for improved cooperation between the Executive and the Assembly on budgetary matters. It would also facilitate Members and Committees in fulfilling their scrutiny and advisory functions, which, in turn, will assist in overseeing the effective and efficient delivery of the Executive's strategic priorities. In addition, the memorandum will support the Executive in their role in managing public expenditure and will help maintain and enhance good working relationships between Departments and their Committees. Indeed, a draft memorandum of understanding was jointly prepared by Assembly and DOF officials during the 2011 mandate.
If implemented, the memorandum of understanding would help to address those fundamental weaknesses in our financial and budgetary process. In particular, it would help the Assembly to give conscientious consideration to budgetary proposals, and it would influence draft Budgets at the formative stages and key decisions in advance of future Budgets being agreed by the Executive. That is what open, transparent, meaningful consultation is all about. Predecessors referenced the memorandum on a number of occasions, yet this is a significant body of work on which, to date, agreement has not been reached.
Recent events have emphasised the need for greater oversight and scrutiny of public expenditure. I therefore encourage the Executive and the Assembly to achieve an agreed process for budgetary scrutiny as a matter of urgency. In this regard, it would be helpful if the Minister in his winding-up speech today would provide a commitment to the House that work will resume to finalise and agree the memorandum of understanding between the Assembly and the Executive. In supporting a memorandum and other reforms, we, as an Assembly, also need to ensure that, in conducting our business, these institutions adapt and align to further demonstrate that devolution is working effectively and efficiently and that we can play our part in fulfilling the commitments arising from the agreements that we have made.
In the meantime, on behalf of the Committee for Finance, I support the motion. There ends my contribution as Deputy Chairperson of the Finance Committee. It was very important to place the Committee's wishes and thought processes on the record in Hansard.
I will now speak as the DUP's finance spokesperson. That will allow me that wee bit more freedom to say what I wish. I will not, as far as possible, rehearse what I said yesterday. I want to demonstrate the frustrations that I, as a Bench-Bench MLA, feel daily, not just in this new age of the Assembly but in my 10 years as an MLA, and to explain my experiences of scrutiny and effecting real change.
We have sometimes heard Ministers in this place talk the talk, but have we really seen them walk the walk? If we are to have a truly collective Executive, they have to be truly collective, not only in the decisions that are made but in the responsibilities that they have. That is quite difficult when we have a five-party Executive and can lead to dangers. I make this point about the memorandum of understanding. We have a five-party Executive and an Assembly made up mostly of MLAs from those five parties, with very few Members not belonging to them, so it is incumbent on us, in our job and in our role, to make sure that scrutiny happens. That is why it is incumbent on me to ask all the tough questions and raise all the tough issues that we face now and in the future and also to bring up and display my disgruntlement when something goes wrong.
I give the Finance Minister the same commitment today that I gave him when we first met in Committee: I will work alongside him to try to work out the best path forward for this country and its people, in order to make lives better. One question that we should all ask — Ministers, Committee Chairs, Deputy Chairs and Back-Bench MLAs — about every decision that we take is this: is that the effect, is that the impact or is it the other way round? I know that there are some really tough decisions to be made by the Executive and then by us in the House. That those decisions are difficult does not mean that they should not be made. I am sick and tired of cans being kicked down the road. I am sick and tired of us having the power in this place that a regional Assembly should have and then not availing ourselves of those powers to the best of our abilities to bring tangible and true benefits to the people of Northern Ireland.
Although there are a lot of figures with a lot of zeros in a Budget, when those are stripped away, a Budget comes down to the basics of how spending and saving works in a household. Let us try not to complicate things too much, because, ultimately, this comes down to the fiscal management of funding for our people. I raise that point because we need to get back to basics. Look at the torment that our Civil Service has gone through. I commend it for the way in which it held this place up as a country over the past three years. I also commend the permanent secretaries for making the decisions that they had to make, when they knew, fine rightly, that it was not their place to do so. Of course, the input from the NIO and the Secretary of State was not ideal and really should not have happened. When we consider all that, we really need to get back to basics. Look at the traumatic situation that most of our systems, Departments and arm's-length bodies have been placed in over funding and over how they should move forward. One way in which we can fix that is through Budget Bills. Again I have a lot of sympathy for the Minister, even today, because a lot of the stuff in the Bill has already happened; he had no say on decisions that were made. Then, of course, there is the Vote on Account, which is 45% of our Budget spend for the next financial term. That is very important. I made the point yesterday that the Assembly, as a corporate body, has not had the time to scrutinise the detail and bids of all the Departments. That is fundamentally important. Again, it picks up on the point that the Chair was going to make, and which I made, about the memorandum of understanding.
I will go in to some detail around some of the worries that I have, which have been raised with me lately at both constituency and regional level. Public-sector pay is one. I know that a 1% pay rise equates to about £8 million. I hope that I am right; this is recorded in Hansard. That is hard-earned money going back into the hands of hard-working people, who then spend money in the economy. They are taxed on it, so that actually helps the system. Money, and the spending of it, makes the world go round, so it is very important that public-sector pay gets to an appropriate and comparable level. If you do not, market forces come in to play; people will move away and do not engage with the Civil Service, and it will not recruit. That is going to be a massive issue in the future. We already know that we have an ageing workforce in our Civil Service. That really needs to be addressed. One way of addressing that is through apprenticeship schemes for all areas of our Civil Service, especially our skills. I ask the Minister to consider greatly how we can reform the recruitment process in the Civil Service to ensure that the skills are there, the people are there and the pay is there for the appropriate level of skill in our Civil Service.
I had a meeting last week with a developer in my constituency who told me that, even though he has planning permission for apartments, which are badly needed in the area in which he is going to build, he cannot get a connection for sewerage. That is another massive issue that the Assembly really has not dealt with at any time. Just because we cannot see the pipes underneath our ground does not mean that they are not breaking down, that they are not becoming older and decrepit and that they are able to do the function that we ask them to do. There has to be massive investment in our water and sewerage systems. The point that I made yesterday was that just placing more money into NI Water's hands, or just raising more capital and revenue through water charges, simply will not cut it; basically, you are flushing money down the drain. We need to reform the system that operates and spends that money every day. We have never grappled with that, but we need to because, ultimately, the problem is not going to go away; it is only going to get worse. Just because we cannot see the pipes underneath the ground does not mean that they are not there and that the problem is not there.
Look at Health. I had a meeting with the Northern Trust only last week. My colleague Pam Cameron was also at the meeting. We saw very clearly the impact and the positive effect of the supply money that the DUP was able to get from the Government. The way the money is being spent in the Northern Trust is very good; it has helped with things like healthcare and waiting lists. However, that money is limited; it is going to come to an end. It is very important that we identify the schemes put in place by the confidence-and-supply money that have worked well and that we try to make sure that those are funded continually, right until we solve the problems in our health system.
Again, we need to look at our health system and the reforms that need to take place, because — and this was raised yesterday by my colleague Christopher Stalford, in relation to 50% of our budget going to health — if we continue to do the things that we are doing, that percentage will only increase. If it only increases without any reform, we are going to struggle everywhere, not just in health but in every Department. We are going to jam the fiscal system to the point where it cannot operate.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
Housing is another massive issue that we must face. Are we building enough houses? Absolutely not. Are we looking after the current stock that we have? Absolutely not. Look at how many times cycle schemes and other schemes for improving houses, such as window schemes and roofing schemes, have been delayed. How many times have we, as MLAs, been given a commitment that a scheme is going to happen in June, yet it is still to start by June of the next year? That needs to be resolved, and it is purely down to finance.
Reform is also needed in housing. We need to give the Housing Executive the tools that it requires to function appropriately; the debt issue, which is massive, needs to be resolved; and the way our housing associations work and how they can build houses needs to be reformed. The problems all pile on top of each other. We cannot have a policy to build 20,000 new homes, which is a lovely target and policy, when we do not have the sewerage system in place to accommodate that build. That is why we need a collective Executive that can take a panoramic view when making a decision, which the Assembly and the Committees can scrutinise properly.
Look at our infrastructure. We hear the Minister shouting all the time when she is here about the potholes and the street lights, and she is absolutely right. We need to ensure that our streets are safe, that our roads are traffic-worthy and that our cars are roadworthy with regard to the MOT system. We must ensure that the street lights are on because, if they are not, it impacts greatly on elderly folk. There is absolutely no doubt about it; if we want to get elderly folk out and about and more active, street lighting is a massive issue for them.
I could list a lot of things that are going wrong with the place, and I realise and admit that I am not giving many solutions. It is the responsibility of this Assembly to consider solutions at Committee level and help the Executive to achieve the goals that we need them to set. I give a commitment to the Finance Minister to work with him in the Committee. I hope that the Committee, as a collective, will do this too — support him when there are tough decisions to be made and not play politics, as we have done in the past, with decisions that need to be made. Ultimately, if we do not make decisions, our people and our families are going to end up having worse lives. That is basically the point.
I look forward to seeing the Budget Bill passed, I look forward to seeing the spring Estimates, and I look forward to the new Budget that the Minister will table once he has received information and a drawdown from the Exchequer when it launches its Budget on 11 March. The Minister made a decision yesterday about delaying that process. That process is the right one to have, and a Budget Bill should be brought forward after we find out from the Exchequer what we are getting. He talked about the end of March, and he has a very fine window of time in which to bring it, because there are all sorts of regulatory and mechanical fixtures at play. So, he is probably left with only the last Monday and Tuesday of March to bring it. Again, we need that as quickly as possible.
I also look forward to the day when the new process starts, and it should start very soon — no later than April, the start of the new financial year — where we are working on a Budget for the next year. It will be very important to bring that information to the Finance Committee as soon as possible, so that we can inject our thought processes and other Committees can inject their thought processes into that mix, so that, when a draft Budget is formed and launched to the Committee in September, hopefully, before it goes out to consultation, there will be a Budget that is nearly there, is fit for purpose and has all the requirements that we need moving forward. The public would then have their say in the public consultation, which should be meaningful. In itself, the process of this regional Assembly going out to consultation on a Budget is unique and, I believe, quite healthy. That would take place and inform the Budget, so that what we have in December and January is something that is fit for purpose and robust, with everybody having been injected into that psyche and that mindset to produce a Budget that helps our people moving forward.
I say all that in hope, because I must put on record again that the previous Sinn Féin Finance Minister failed to bring forward a draft Budget in September. All the Committees were screaming for that Budget, and it did not come in September. It did not come in October or November or December or January. That left this place and the Civil Service in a very bad place, and I hope never, ever to return to a place like that again.
The other point I will make is this.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for giving way. I listened to him yesterday, and I hear him saying the same thing today, which will probably be the case with a lot of Members. The Member referred to the fact that no Budget Bill was brought forward, but he failed to explain why. I heard him and his colleague yesterday refer to RHI as a "botched boiler scheme". Given the fact that there were allegations leading to corruption at the heart of government and the fact that public money was under such scrutiny by the public and other Committee members, will the Member perhaps elaborate on why the Budget Bill could not be brought forward, please?
Mr Frew: That is quite extraordinary. I thank the Member for her contribution and interjection, but to now suggest that the Sinn Féin Finance Minister did not bring forward a Budget in September because of RHI is quite incredulous. That is the first I have heard that, and I must say that I am confused. The party opposite me is in denial.
Mr Frew: Yes, I will. The Budget Bill is very clear. It is facts and figures, and we need to make sure —.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for giving way. I am glad that he is not playing politics on the issue, as he said that we should not do that. I cannot help but concur with most of what the Member said yesterday and has repeated today, but I cannot help feeling like Bobby Ewing having woken up to find the past 10 years have been a dream, with the DUP bearing no responsibility whatsoever for anything that has happened or has not happened during that time.
Coming back to the point: the Member says that we hope to be in a better position next year and have a draft Budget by September for the following year and that that is how it will be fit for purpose. Will the Member agree that, for the Budget to be really fit for purpose, we should be seeing a draft Budget in September for the next two or three years and we should be moving to multi-year budgeting? Will he agree that, when we are doing a yearly Budget cycle, there is no way that it can ever be truly fit for purpose?
Mr Frew: The Member makes an excellent contribution on that point. We want to get to a place where we have multi-year Budgets. It is the only way to go in this place, and it will allow flexibility, I am sure, in the way that we spend money. There is a pressure when we do not have money, but there is also a pressure when we have too much money in a Department and it cannot be spent on time and has to go into the monitoring rounds. The more that we have flexibility and the more that we have foresight, it is a very good thing. I commend the Member for making that point.
I also look forward to the day when the SDLP votes for a Budget in this place, given that it had no real responsibility for it before.
Mr Durkan: We look forward to one that is fit for purpose.
Mr Frew: I will give way to the Member again if he wants to come in. There is no problem there.
Mr Buckley: As a Back-Bench Member, I find that there is nothing more frustrating than watching how, at the end of a Budget cycle, Departments — in particular, the Department for Infrastructure — bid for money and roll out that use of finite resource on schemes that are not priority issues, whether at a constituency or regional level. Does the Member concur with that?
Mr Frew: The Member makes a very good point. We have to get back to basics. All MLAs have a wish list as long as their arm, and we would all love to have it funded, but we cannot fund everything. The Budget Bill makes it clear that we cannot fund everything. We can all demand that our wish lists be put on a Budget line, and we can all have red lines turning into Budget lines, but it will not help our people. It will not help our people when our services are struggling, our health service is crumbling, and the infrastructure below our feet is crumbling. We really need to get back to basics and prioritise what we spend our money on.
The point that I wanted to make before I was interrupted by all those interventions — I thank Members for the interventions, and welcome them, because that is how we get the most out of our debates — is that we have had a draft Programme for Government for the last three years. It was agreed in draft form by the Executive, and not once have I seen a Budget Bill refer to the priorities of that Programme for Government.
The Programme for Government will work only if it is populated with cash. Budgets will work in tandem with the Programme for Government only if it is overlapped and overlaid. I do not see that happening. I do not see where you can relate and attribute money in the Budget Bill to the draft Programme for Government. The Executive may well produce a new draft Programme for Government. That is all well and good, and, hopefully, it will not be much different from the goals, outputs and indicators that were set out in the previous one. However, until we have money alongside a Budget line going to each outcome, I do not see how the two can walk down the path together. I ask the Minister to consider not only how we finance the Programme for Government but how we scrutinise it. If money goes to goals that the Programme for Government has set, which the Executive agree to, how do we ensure that those goals are being financed appropriately? That needs to happen. It does not matter whether we agree with some of the outcomes in the Programme for Government. They will be agreed, and we will have to move forward in that way. We can always complain and debate, but unless we have money on the lines going to each of those goals, they will just not happen.
My plea today is to get back to basics. Let us fix the things that need to be fixed. We all know what they are. Let us have the political will and the courage to make those things right and to reform them. Some of these systems have been in place for decades, and they need to change. They are not fit for purpose. That will take funding, which, if it goes to the right places to make the necessary reforms, will not only make savings for our people but make their lives better. That is where we need to be. Surely that is where the Assembly and the Executive, which make the decisions, need to be.
I applaud the Minister for bringing the Bill forward, and I congratulate his staff. I am sure that the civil servants in the Department of Finance have had it tough over the last three years. In fact, I know that they have had it tough. I commend them for their speed in getting this all in place as soon as the Assembly was up and running. Of course, the Departments were not just faced with the policies that they had to devise for this place but have had to answer all the ministerial questions from MLAs and all that. They have had to ramp up very quickly in the last month, for which I commend them. It is important that they get up to speed as quickly as possible. I wish them all the best in the two-pronged approach — in fact, the three-pronged approach — in the next financial year not only in producing a Budget very soon after the Chancellor's Budget but in making the conditions right for a draft Budget in September, which the Finance Committee will then be able to scrutinise and go to consultation on.
Dr Archibald (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): I will speak, first, as Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy. As Members will be aware, the Department for the Economy has a key role in driving forward prosperity, improving skills and ensuring that people can meet the challenges of new industries and jobs that may not yet exist. The Committee has had a number of briefings on the Department's budget, and members have now got to grips with the funding that is available to the Department in the next financial year and the pressures that, as yet, have not been funded. A LeasCheann Comhairle, you, the Minister and other Members will be glad to hear that I do not intend simply to regurgitate the highlights of the Economy Department's budget. Instead, I want to speak about vision. I want to share how its budget is a key ingredient in making a better and more sustainable future for all.
The Department for the Economy's remit, like that of other Departments, is wide and subject to a range of demands. It extends to further and higher education, skills, careers, energy, tourism and workers' rights. The Department will, of course, be a key player in the management of Brexit. Many of the plans in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document depend on the Economy Department for their development and realisation. It, therefore, seems obvious that funding for the Department should be prioritised. The Committee heard with concern about the scale of unfunded inescapable and high-priority pressures — some £110 million — that the Department will carry into the new financial year. Of course, other Departments carry even bigger pressures, and we must continue to invest in health and education, which are close to people's hearts. The Committee does not disagree with that.
However, in a context of limited resources, funds must be targeted where they do most good and provide the most benefit. The Department for the Economy will produce strategies for industry, tourism, energy, careers, skills and a host of other areas, which will help to develop and expand our economy. The Department's budget was reduced by £46·2 million in 2016-17 and £30·3 million in 2017-18. It flatlined in 2018-19 and 2019-2020. Pressures that require funding include further education, EU exit preparation, city deals, energy and those that are linked to upskilling to make the economy more productive, competitive and sustainable. In New Decade, New Approach, the Executive highlight their plans to invest for the future, improve productivity, seek new trading opportunities post the EU exit and develop a regionally balanced economy with opportunities for all. There is also a promise to ensure that there is the right mix of skills for a thriving economy. Delivery of those will require a properly funded Department for the Economy.
The 'New Decade, New Approach' document also highlights that the Executive will prioritise the economic potential offered by the various city deals. Additionally, there are plans to bring more events here, like the Open championship, to boost tourism, as well as plans to develop an enhanced approach to careers advice, the curriculum, training and apprenticeships. All of that must be properly funded. The 'New Decade, New Approach' document also highlights that a priority for the forthcoming PFG will be:
"creating good jobs and protecting workers’ rights."
Funding will be required for that, too. On the proposed expansion of student numbers at Ulster University's Magee campus, the 'New Decade, New Approach' document states:
"The Executive will bring forward proposals for the development and expansion of the UU campus at Magee College, including the necessary increase in maximum student numbers to realise the 10,000 student campus target and a Graduate Entry Medical School."
The 'New Decade, New Approach' document also makes commitments to tackle climate change. Those will fall to the Economy Department, as will action on workers' rights. That amounts to quite an agenda of work for a Department that goes into the new financial year with a substantial funding gap. The Committee supports the ambition of the Economy Minister and the Executive more widely. However, it will be the Committee's job to ensure that there is delivery on the commitments made. Members are up for that job, and the Committee looks forward to working with the Minister on the delivery of this worthy agenda on the back of a good budget outcome for the Department.
I will now make some remarks as Sinn Féin's spokesperson on the economy and climate action. I will continue on the theme of a vision for the future. The economy and climate action are two priority areas that need coordinated investment to drive economic growth and productivity while reducing carbon emissions. However, we are faced with the consequences of a decade of Tory austerity. We are also in the midst of dealing with, and we will undoubtedly have to continue to deal with for many years to come, the entirely negative consequences of an unwanted and unnecessary Brexit. People here voted to reject Brexit, a rejection that has been reiterated on a number of occasions since June 2016.
Last week saw the start of the negative outworkings of Brexit, with immigration proposals that show once again that the British Government have no regard for our economy or unique circumstances. They completely ignored the opinions and views of business leaders here, who engaged constructively and in good faith, and they have proposed instead a system that is a threat to many sectors of our economy, including the hospitality, agri-food, care and tourism sectors. For our part, as a party, we will continue to stand up for the best interests of Ireland, North and South, and make the case for our economy, businesses and communities.
The type of budgetary pressures that I outlined for the Department for the Economy, are, of course, reflected across the Executive. The British and Irish Governments produced the 'New Decade, New Approach' document following several months of negotiations for which the watchwords were "credible" and "sustainable". Time and again, Sinn Féin and other parties outlined that to be credible and sustainable the institutions required proper financing. The immediate rolling back on the costed and negotiated budgetary commitments in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document by the British Government represents incredible bad faith and hinders the Executive's ability to deliver effective and high-quality public services. I have no doubt that the Finance Minister will continue to impress upon the British Government and Treasury the urgent need for them to fulfil their financial obligations.
We need a new economic strategy that promotes good jobs and ensures regional balance while decarbonising our economy and addressing long-term low productivity. Low productivity is a fundamental cause of this region's economic underperformance, and it must be tackled head-on. That means investing in skills on a regionally balanced basis, supporting entrepreneurship, addressing the structural barriers that discourage women from reaching their economic potential and directing resources on the basis of objective need. It means upholding workers' rights and protections and putting an end to casualisation practices, including precarious work and zero-hour contracts. We need to value and empower the most important element of our economy, which is our people, and ensure that our young people have opportunities to aspire to.
It means investing in infrastructure to address the decades of regional imbalance and ensure the connectedness of our rural communities. A green new deal is a Programme for Government commitment in New Decade, New Approach. It must be at the core of the economic strategy to help effectively tackle the climate emergency through a just transition to a net zero carbon society. Promoting green skills development, including the upskilling and reskilling of the workforce, must be a priority. We need a new energy strategy that enables the transition to a net zero carbon society with obligations and incentives that must include support for retrofitting and, importantly, is based on the principles of a just transition and does not punish those who are least able to afford it.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. I agree with her about the energy strategy; it is very important. Is she concerned, as I am, with the current investigation by the Utility Regulator on the independence and governance of SONI and how that organisation has been stripped of capacity and leadership, which could well undermine any energy strategy going forward? We actually really need to fix SONI in order to get the most out of any energy strategy.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Before the Member responds, let me say that I am not quite sure how that relates to the Budget Bill. The Member can respond to this as she sees fit.
Dr Archibald: I thank the Member for his intervention, and we will, of course, await the Utility Regulator's response on that.
The new economic strategy, along with tackling the climate emergency and mitigating the impact of Brexit, requires targeted investment. However, while we continue to lack the fiscal powers to effectively balance our own budget, we continue to be constrained in our ability to invest adequately and most effectively. I welcome the Finance Minister's commitment to set up a commission to explore the devolution of fiscal powers. We also need to see greater cooperation across the island of Ireland to strengthen our closely interlinked and interdependent economy and to make best use of our public services in both jurisdictions. We need to urgently facilitate the discussion on our constitutional future. It is certainly my clear view that a new, agreed Ireland is the best context within which to grow our economy and develop our society, ending unnecessary duplication and planning to deliver public services in education, further and higher —
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. A couple of times in her contribution she mentioned the need for legislation and forward thinking to tackle the climate emergency. I have yet to hear her mention public transport, namely Translink. Does she not see a direct contradiction in the Assembly a couple of weeks ago declaring a climate emergency yet organisations such as Translink being on the brink of collapse?
Dr Archibald: I thank the Member for his intervention. I did say that we need to invest in infrastructure as well. It is important that we do that in a regionally balanced way and in a way that supports addressing net-zero carbon targets.
As I was saying, we need to end unnecessary duplication. We need to plan in order to deliver our public services in education, further and higher education, health, housing and everything else across the island, ensuring better regional balance.
Of course, a united Ireland also offers us a pathway back to the European Union and a solution to many of the problems presented in the near and longer term by Brexit. Tackling the climate emergency effectively requires a holistic, all-Ireland approach, because the environment recognises no borders. We have the opportunity to rebalance and reshape our economy on the basis of a fair and just transition, with full fiscal autonomy and sovereignty to plan a fully-integrated all-Ireland economy and society. We should take it.
I support the Minister's motion to give our Departments the ability to spend in advance of a new Budget next month.
Mr McGrath: I spoke yesterday on the Supplementary Estimates in my capacity as Chair of the Executive Office Committee. I mentioned the importance of issues such as the historical institutional abuse payments to victims, payments to victims and survivors of the Troubles, the need to prepare this place for the way forward in the light of Brexit, and how we fund our offices that will sell Northern Ireland and promote it.
Those are key financial asks for the Executive Office, and they must be given due consideration. I hope that the Budget under consideration reflects those needs and priorities.
However, I want to speak about how this Budget will impact on the residents of South Down and to illustrate some of the multitude of needs felt most acutely by the people of my constituency. I welcome the fact that, nearly four years after being elected an MLA, I have the opportunity to participate in a Budget debate on behalf of the people of South Down, whom I represent.
A quick look at the Budget Bill as it stands shows that the request is for a spend of about £8 billion from the Consolidated Fund, use of resources of £9 billion and some borrowing of in and around £4 billion. Given the amounts of money that we are talking about, I have some concern that the process here is so quick and short that the scrutiny that we can give to the Bill is minimal. Circumstances have led us here, but this is a massive public spend, and we are not getting the opportunity to scrutinise it properly and have a good, proper discussion about priorities.
With the Vote on Account, where 45% of a Department's budget is given approval, there is a fear that we fall into the trap of simply doing what was done last year. By the time the Budget is set, half of the money is spent, and, as a result, we then cannot set many priorities. I echo the remarks of my colleague from Foyle Mark Durkan about how we need to look forward and deliver two- and three-year Budgets, whereby real change can be effected, because there will not be massive changes made midway through the process.
Budgets feed through to community groups. I remember a community group being given six months' worth of funding and then being told at the end of that time that its funding was being halved. That meant that there was very little money left for it to continue for the rest of that year. That was a predicament. Money had to be found for the group. Those are some of the problems that we have with short-term Budgets. We are constantly voting for just 45% of our money, after a very quick debate that does not allow for proper scrutiny.
We are all too aware of the budget cuts that have left our public services and staff in terrible financial hardship. I would like to put names and faces to those who have been affected and those who could benefit from the Budget having a positive impact. We cannot really say anything about the fact that these institutions were felled for three and a half years. That has left portfolios abandoned, vital projects shelved and, most shamefully, public trust in elected officials decimated. Now is the time to prove that these institutions can work and that they will deliver for the public.
Nowhere is that illustrated more clearly than in our health service. Almost as soon as the institutions were restored, the Health Minister found himself having to address the issue of pay parity and staffing levels for our healthcare workers. We know that those front-line members of staff go over and beyond the call of duty on a daily basis, and their work was repaid by an abuse of their basic rights as staff by previous Health Ministers. Pay parity was achieved, but we can do more. Community-led initiatives and service providers are blazing the trail with new and innovative means of picking up the pieces following the cuts. I think of the great work that is being done, on a smaller scale, in the ADHD Hub in Newcastle, in my South Down constituency. The hub offers a haven for children and families affected by ADHD. It offers a place of welcome and understanding and a place where those living with ADHD can develop their skills and find their talents, which they may not have considered before. Its work has been publicised far and wide, as far as America. People ask why they cannot have that type of provision and why they do not have such a space in their town. However, the hub suffers due to a lack of funding. In spite of that, it powers on with its work and fundraises where it can. It makes me think that the Budget should reflect that type of work and the funding should get right down to ground level to support such initiatives in delivering the work that they do.
I think also of hospital services such as the Downe Hospital. It was a result of community activism and political will with leadership and cohesion of effort and shows what we can achieve. The SDLP has stood shoulder to shoulder with them as part of that process. Five years ago, tens of thousands of people — activists — took to the street to speak with one voice to save the Downe from budget cuts. That point was heard and adhered to, but today the Downe continues to suffer as a result of a lack of investment. I would like to see the Budget being able to reflect some of the priorities that people are asking for in that hospital. There is a need for investment in a 24-hour accident and emergency department and in the provision of a permanent MRI scanner. Those services cannot be provided because of the lack of funding and because of the difficult funding mechanism that the Budget will continue with. That is why we would like to see a change to it.
Teams in our Ambulance Service work tirelessly in their work, but the service needs investment. I would like to see the Budget reflecting the priority that the community places on ambulance services. Category A calls are supposed to be responded to within eight minutes. That is grand if you live in a city, but I live in a rural constituency where sometimes people have to wait for 75 minutes for a response to a category A call. That has resulted in the death of constituents. It is a direct result of the funding mechanisms that have been put in place. We need to see changes for that, going forward, and I would like to see the Budget take that as a priority and reflect that.
Education is another area that has suffered as a result of the Budgets that we have had in the past. We now have an opportunity, in this Budget, to address that. The Education Minister has, once again, found the issue of teachers' pay on his desk. This has not been previously —
Ms Dillon: I appreciate the Member taking the intervention. On that point, I am glad that the Member across the way, my colleague on the Justice Committee, has finally come to the realisation of the need to fund our public servants, because, in the previous Executive, the Education Minister would not give the teachers even a 1% pay rise because they had the nerve to say that it was not enough. Going forward, we need to ensure that that same Education Minister addresses teachers' pay, because it is a massive issue. Those people give a lot of goodwill. They work, as you said about the health workers, over and above their hours and go way beyond what is expected of them, and it is time that they were paid for that.
Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for her intervention. I suppose that there is a two-pronged approach to that. Obviously, if we had more money, we would be able to address those issues, and that would be good, proper and right. However, it is also about how we manage our money — that is the challenge that the Finance Minister is dealing with — and how that money is rolled out and invested. If we do not invest in the workforce, it will be a difficult area to manage. Teachers have clearly articulated their needs, and it is important that we address them.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. The point is well made that we must invest in our people, but we should also stop spending money on antiquated services and systems that cost us money. Education is one example, given that there are so many sectors to pay for. We should get to the point where we have the money at hand in order to invest in our people in that regard.
Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for his intervention. Again, as part of NDNA, we looked at that, and most of the parties agreed that there needs to be some sort of restructuring that can properly be funded by the Department and that Budgets such as this better reflect the needs on the ground. When we have all-party support for something, it should quickly become a priority because it is likely to be achieved. Those discussions have taken place as part of the talks process, and they should be delivered as quickly as possible.
When we look at how the Budgets and monitoring round funding have been used, we see that monitoring rounds use money on a very short-term basis because they are not part of a proper Budget. I know that, in my area, in South Down, incredible early years work is being done by Knockevin Special School. It is the result of another community-driven initiative and is an illustration of what can be achieved when people work together. There has been a recent announcement of £10 million of additional money for special education needs. However, that money is not going into providing additional spaces in classrooms, which is actually one of the things that would deal best with the needs out there. I am sure that every MLA has people coming into their constituency office, saying that their children need to be in a special school but the places are not available for them. We need a Budget that reflects that and provides extra places. I fear that we are using the monitoring rounds to put a sticking plaster on a problem, rather than using the Budgets to find a proper, thought-out and well-resourced way of dealing with the issues. Certainly, in education and special needs education, the issue of additional places comes up again and again. I would like to see the Budget being able to provide additional places, where that is possible.
There are other initiatives that the Budget could reflect that would help our schools as well. In my constituency, Teconnaught Cross Community Pre School is currently based in an old building. It spends an average of £200 per month on heating alone, and that is not sustainable. The budget currently allocated to the school just about covers the wages and the daily running costs. With an increased budget, the school could diversify and install renewable means of heating such as solar panels. Why do we not consider incentivising such renewable measures for schools? Where better to get children to learn about green thinking and sustainable energy than in the classroom and in their school. I think that the Budget should reflect ways of helping schools to reduce their bills and to make better use of their budgets in the classroom for the pupil, rather than on heating old buildings, on which literally hundreds and hundreds of pounds are spent every month.
We have to look at the Budget going forward and then think about the past decisions that have been taken but have never materialised. I know, for example, that Our Lady and St Patrick Primary School in Downpatrick was formed after two primary schools were brought together into one old building, with the promise that the other site would be cleared for a new build. That was nearly 10 years ago, and they still wait. Their school is now in an old convent girls' school building that was previously the old boys' secondary school in the town. We do not just hand-me-down clothes in our area; we do hand-me-down school buildings. The promise was there for an additional building, but it has never materialised, and here we go into another Budget, potentially —.
Ms S Bradley: May I add to that list St Louis Grammar School in South Down, which has exactly the same problem?
Mr McGrath: Again, that is a recurring theme that we want Budgets to reflect. Unfortunately, however, we are not getting the opportunity or the scrutiny to be able to discuss those types of initiative. I hope that future Budget processes will allow us to address them.
Infrastructure was a particular casualty of the failings of these institutions three and a half years ago and, indeed, the actions of previous Ministers, some of whom stand beside potholes and uneven road surfaces now for photos, yet they were the very ones who slashed the budget to repair them. That, certainly, is a lesson in the Stormont irony that the public often miss because of the spin process.
On assuming her post as Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon has been faced with another abandoned portfolio and the result of it. She has had to address the ramifications of shelved projects, a crisis in MOT centres, a public transport system in dire straits, slashed budgets for street lights and pothole repairs and much more. She has responded most ably to all of that with a very limited and finite budget. However, were a radically larger infrastructure budget to be allocated, there would be far better days ahead for us all.
Given that the current UK Prime Minister recently announced HS2, which will cost upwards of £89 billion, it is only just and fair that the North receives its fair share under Barnett consequentials. That could be used to radically transform our society. Of course, it could be used to ensure that our response to street lights and potholes is not just the patch jobs that we all see but one that gives people effective and energy-efficient street lighting and roads that can be driven over without breaking suspension springs or getting a flat tyre. That will resonate particularly with the residents of Saul Road in Downpatrick, given the amount of damage that is done to cars there.
Radical infrastructure investment can go much further and can act as a catalyst for much more. Investing in the infrastructure of South Down, in key targeted areas such as Downpatrick, would allow the product of St Patrick to be taken seriously and developed. Investing in the jewel of the tourism crown that is Newcastle would allow the tourist and hospitality sector to flourish and show the people of the North that our hospitality sector extends far beyond Belfast and Portrush — which is, of course, to mean no offence to either of those places. Investing in the connecting areas, such as Drumaness, Loughinisland, Spa, Castlewellan, Leitrim and Kilcoo, will allow people to enjoy all of the natural sites and landscapes that go with them. I want to see investment and budgets for additional picnic areas where seats are available for families to enjoy everything around them. It all boils down to investment in our infrastructure. If we invest in people, we can provide jobs and security.
We also have key maritime infrastructural projects that need to be reflected in this Budget and future Budgets. The harbours at the fishing ports of Kilkeel and Ardglass in South Down have reached their capacity, and, without further government investment, they will stall and their development will be prevented. The concern is that people will go elsewhere if they cannot see scope for development in the existing provision. It is critical that the harbour in Ardglass is deepened and that there are more mooring spaces for boats. Currently, some of the boats are stuck in the harbour when the tide goes out. Some boats are tethered together as there are no more spaces available, which means that fishermen have the additional peril of having to climb over boats to land their catch. That practice is a health and safety risk that would not be acceptable in any other place, so why should it be acceptable here? I hope that the Budget, in the year ahead, will provide funding that will reflect the needs that there are.
Investing in our natural environment, such as the new build at Our Lady and St Patrick's, is no longer optional. For the sake of current and future generations, we must invest in this, and invest substantially. Will we see this reflected in the Budget in the months ahead?
Also — I am coming near the end — there is climate change, which is an undeniable and irrefutable fact, although some would question that. With rising sea levels, there is coastal erosion. These matters need to concern each of us so that our natural landscape can be enjoyed by all, with houses also protected. I hope that, in the Budget lines that are being established, there will be finance to address those concerns.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. I listened intently to the many projects that the Member outlined as being in need of investment. Does he agree with the sentiment of my colleague Mr Frew that, in light of the current budgetary conditions, it is essential that we prioritise issues of national and regional concern?
Mr McGrath: Yes, indeed — absolutely — but one leads to the other. If we constantly do regional, those who pay their rates and taxes and who live in constituencies need to have their say. I am probably asking for a little indulgence and latitude on the basis that this is the first time that I have had an opportunity to raise issues on behalf of constituents in four years, so there is quite a lot that I am referring to for this one Budget.
It would be wrong of me if I did not speak about one regional issue: youth services. It is critical to invest in the Youth Service. It provides opportunities for young people who would otherwise not get to participate in structured activities or educational outcomes. For many who get involved in those projects, it is an opportunity to shine. It can create a different outcome and direction for them in their lives. In the Education budget, I would like consideration to be given at all times to the Youth Service and additional resources. We need to be able to help our young people.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Member for giving way. I declare an interest as a member of the Scout Association. Does the Member agree that it is important that, when we discuss the issue that he just raised, there is a joined-up-ness between the Education Authority and the Department — indeed, across government and local government — and that the Youth Service works closely with the national state uniformed organisations to ensure that there is no duplication and wastage?
Mr McGrath: The 'Priorities for Youth' document, which was produced seven or eight years ago, contains that type of direction: that there should not be duplication. In fact, where the voluntary service is doing the delivery, it should be given priority. That should be enshrined. Of course, the voluntary sector needs to be funded, and the Budget needs to reflect that. It is important that youth services are funded as needed.
As I stated, the Budget for the period ahead is 45% of last year's Budget. I want to end where I started: if we do not have a new approach to the Budget and the Budget process, we will simply come in here and get a few hours to look at the spend of £20 billion and all the priorities for the year ahead. I certainly hope that, once the Budget process is concluded, we can move quickly into the new process and all have our say. We can give our lists, as I have done, in Committees and other places, but we must certainly do what we can for people out there. They want us in here fighting on their behalf for services in their community and the Budget that reflects those.
Mr Nesbitt: As a member of the Committee for the Executive Office, I intend to focus my remarks largely on that part of the Budget Bill. It is a Budget Bill that, I understand, the Ulster Unionist Party will support, albeit with reservations, which I will leave to my party leader to expand on later.
As was said, this is day two of our deliberations on matters budgetary. At the risk of turning this into a rather dull rugby match where the two full backs pump the ball backwards and forwards, I want to return to the Minister's remarks in his concluding address last night, because they are pertinent to the Budget Bill. The Minister seemed to take exception to my references to the cost of the North/South Ministerial Council. In fact, he seemed to suggest that when unionism has nothing else to say, we simply pick on North/South cooperation. The Minster has picked on the wrong unionist here. I do not expect him to hang on my every word, particularly those uttered outside the Chamber, but I assure him that I am well on record as supporting North/South cooperation.
In fact, before I entered politics, I had the pleasure of working closely with the late, great Sir George Quigley, the man who came up with the idea of an eastern seaboard North/South economic corridor. I often heard him tell a story, which may have been apocryphal, about a man from this jurisdiction who manufactured medical bandages. He spent half his life on the road trying to sell them. He went to Scotland, England, Wales and continental Europe. His life was tortured as he looked for sales opportunities. One day, Sir George asked him how he fared in the Republic of Ireland. His surprising response was that he had never crossed the border. With Sir George's encouragement, he did, and he did so well in the Republic that he was able to spend nights at home, put the suitcase back in the attic and buy himself a new car. That is the sort of work that I support from InterTradeIreland, and it has a lot more to do to spread cooperation. Two modern areas on which I support North/South cooperation are the coronavirus and climate emergency. Let me make it clear to the Minister: I support spending on the North/South Ministerial Council, but I just regret that it has not been fully functional because these institutions were not functional over the last three years.
The Minister also wanted to highlight the negative impact of Tory austerity on our budgets and, consequently, our economy. That is fair enough. He has made that point before, and his party makes it at every opportunity. I will just balance that by saying that, in my lifetime, the acts of greatest austerity that most impacted on our economy were IRA bombs. I declare an interest that, on 25 January 1973, the IRA blew up A Nesbitt and Co Ltd. A Nesbitt was my paternal grandfather, Alfred, who set up a linen business in the centre of Belfast and then handed it over to his two sons, my father and my uncle Jack. For the first 15 years of my life, I was expected to go on to become the third-generation Nesbitt to run that business. However, like David versus Goliath, that little incendiary bomb took on the many, many tons of linen bails and won quite easily. Maybe, Tyson Fury-like, it was no contest. If the Minister does not like my politics and does not like me being here in the Chamber, he knows who to speak to. On a more positive note, the Minister agreed with me that we should switch from a dependency culture to a prosperity agenda. I hope that we can use this Budget to do that, and I will return to that theme in a moment.
I set these two principles against the Budget: is there enough money, and is the money being used to deliver what we expect it to achieve? Is there enough money for the Executive Office? The answer appears to be no, going by our last briefing from TEO officials. The baseline is £55·047 million, but this adds a pressure of £4·974 million. In other words, the officials believe that the budget is about 9% short. You will agree that 9% is a serious figure, but it only scratches the surface of the problems. The problems are the historical institutional abuse inquiry, the victims' pension and EU future relations.
As the officials made clear, it is impossible to know how much money we need to budget for the historical institutional abuse inquiry and redress. I believe that it is between £25 million and £60 million for the next financial year, but we cannot nail it down because there are too many variables. We do not know, for example, how many victims remain. We do not know how many will come forward. We do not know how many will be able to provide sufficient proof to enable them to enter the redress scheme. Finally, we do not know how much money the redress panel will award them. Those are the four variables that officials informed us of last week, but I will add this as a very important fifth: we do not know how much money we will be able to recover from the bodies that ran the institutions in which the abuse occurred.
I have heard a commitment from various Ministers and officials that they will pursue these bodies and say, "You must contribute to the redress, but we will go up front, as an Executive and an Assembly, in providing the money to redress and then, at a later stage, try to recoup it". I suggest to the Minister that we do it rather differently. We know who the bodies are. Why not ask them to now deposit a refundable sum of money that we can draw upon, and, if that sum exceeds their liabilities, when it is all done and dusted, we will return the balance? Why should our population suffer because we are dipping into our own coffers before trying to recoup money from these bodies when we should, in my opinion, be approaching them directly in advance and building a pool of money from which we will take justified sums? As I say, if there is a surplus at the end, we will hand it back because it will be a refundable deposit.
The second issue is the victims' pension, and, once again, there are variables. We do not know how many people will come forward, and, therefore, costs for the next financial year are estimated at between £25 million and £60 million. That is beyond the baseline, so suddenly we are adding up a very significant sum of money. The Executive Office has a baseline of £55 million, but it has further pressures of £120 million, so it actually needs about £175 million. How does the Minister intend to deal with that very tricky situation?
Ms Dillon: Thank you. I appreciate you giving way. Will you not agree with me that the victims' pension legislation was brought forward by the British Government, that the guidelines were given by the British Government and that the British Government should, therefore, fund it? They expect the Executive to fund it and the Executive to implement it even though they had absolutely no say in how the legislation was arrived at.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for her intervention, and I applaud her work in trying to secure the pension for the victims. I know that she and others among the five main parties and, indeed, the Green Party all worked collaboratively in trying to agree a system. When she says that this was brought forward without any input from the Members of the Assembly, I disagree. I think we did some very good work, although I acknowledge that the final legislation was passed in Westminster. Should we ask Westminster to contribute? Absolutely.
I have huge concerns about how we go forward, and I think the Minister spoke yesterday about going back to Treasury with a begging bowl. We should go to Treasury whenever we have a special case, and, when it comes to legacy issues, we obviously have a special case that does not apply in Scotland, Wales or any of the English regions. We really need to be very careful going forward because, with the rise of English nationalism, they are looking at us much more closely, and, 26 years on from the ceasefires, I think that they are increasingly asking this question: why is Northern Ireland a special case?
I remind the Member that I was involved in the Stormont House talks. I will never forget the night before the then Prime Minister David Cameron was coming over. The five party leaders were called into a meeting by the then First Minister and deputy First Minister, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. We were given the shopping list of asks that was being presented to the Prime Minister the next morning, and we were all asked to address at least one of the issues. I picked mental health because that is an area that I campaign on, and it is also, of course, a legacy issue. In that document, I saw an ask for childcare, and I was concerned because, first of all, we had £12 million largely unspent and ring-fenced in our budgets for childcare, and, secondly, I did not see how that made us a special case. The Prime Minister came, and, sight unseen, he went through the document, and the first thing he lit on was childcare. He asked this question: "Why have you got childcare needs that we do not have in inner London, Birmingham or Glasgow?" Nobody could answer the question because we do not.
We have the same childcare needs as inner London, Birmingham and Glasgow. Once again, we need to be careful, when we ask for additional moneys from Treasury, that we make a case that distinguishes us from any other region and country of the United Kingdom.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree with me that we are really only a basket-case economy? We keep adding to the burden of our financial pressures by putting into budget lines wish lists, deadlines, red lines and other things that we all would like to fund without looking at historical spend and at functions and systems that are antiquated and not fit for purpose. That is what makes us a basket case.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for his intervention. I am reluctant to agree that we are a basket case, because I am looking for hope. We need to look to the future, however.
The Budget will allocate money Department by Department: in other words, in silos. We have agreed previously that we are coming out of our silos and moving to an outcomes-based accountability form of government, which means cross-cutting. Simply put, previously, when we had educational underachievement, we looked to the Minister of Education and said, "That is your problem". We now recognise that healthier children do better in school, so we say to the Minister of Health, "It is your problem as well". We know that children in better housing are likely to do better in school, so we say to the Minister for Communities, "It is your problem too, so the three of you should get in the room and start working on it". It means cooperating on budgets, and that is where Steven Agnew's Children's Services Co-operation Act, which he brought in as a private Member, is so valuable.
A third issue that I want to mention relates to the Executive Office budget. To a certain extent, it takes us from the question of whether we have enough money to that of whether we use it properly. I refer to a budget for EU future relations. I quote the Executive Office's aim on future relations, as presented to the Committee last week:
"TEO aims to ensure that the UK Government's negotiation strategy for leaving the EU is aware of, and informed by, a full understanding of the NI issues and implications at every stage."
We are looking at a border down the Irish Sea, so I think that we can conclude that the aim has been a catastrophic failure to date. The aim is not just to ensure that the UK Government are "aware of" our particular needs but to ensure that their strategy is "informed by" them. A border down the Irish Sea does not reflect the UK Government being informed in their strategy.
The points-based immigration system that the Home Office introduced last Tuesday does us no favours, not just over low-skilled labour. We have heard from Hospitality Ulster and the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium that the minimum wage of £25,600 is disastrous for us. No doubt the fishing industry and the agri-food sector would say the same. There is also now an issue with skilled labour. It turns out that there is a shortage occupations list. In other words, there is a list of occupations for which, the Government believe, there are insufficient numbers of appropriately qualified people to take the jobs. That applies in a number of sectors. Last week, I discovered that, although there is a UK-wide shortage occupations list, Scotland has a dedicated, Scotland-only shortage occupations list. Northern Ireland does not. Why not? It turns out that the points-based system that the Home Office brought in last week is based largely on a report from a group called the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). As early as May 2019, the MAC recommended that Wales and Northern Ireland draw up their own shortage occupation lists, but it appears that we have not. Once again, Northern Ireland appears to be the most affected region of the UK from Brexit but the least prepared. I acknowledge that it is not about giving the budget to our future relations division as much as it is about how it uses the money.
I agree with the Minister, and he agreed with me yesterday when I said that we needed a prosperity agenda. We need to use the Budget to best effect. Let us stop the begging-bowl culture of dependency with the Treasury. I think that the Minister acknowledged yesterday that those days are gone. People have read Sam McBride's book 'Burned' and understand that we took the attitude that non-block grant money and annually managed expenditure was free money and we should fill our boots. We cannot do that any more; we will not be allowed to. This Budget is even more important than those in previous years, because the purse strings are being tightened. Let us have a prosperity agenda. We should use the money not just to make sure that our citizens have a few more quid in their back pocket, important as that is. Prosperity also means that they have a great sense of mental health and well-being, they wake up feeling good about themselves and with a sense of purpose in their lives and they go to bed with a sense of achievement after a day's work.
As I said to Mr Frew, it is important not just that we look at the budgets per Department but that we cooperate across Departments in a cross-cutting manner. To do that, we need a form of political maturity that we may not have seen over the last number of years. It is a maturity that says, "Once the votes are cast, we're no longer political opponents. Whether we like it or not, we're political partners". For the first time in five years, you have five parties in the Executive. What I expect, what my party expects and, I think, what the people out there expect is that, when those Ministers sit round that table and one says, "I've got a problem" and articulates it, a Minister from another party across the table might say, "Well, have you thought of this?", and the Minister with the problem says, "My word, that's a great idea. I wish I had thought of that. Let's do it". I am not sure that that was the case in previous Executives, and I would love to see it in the two years that remain to us.
We need common purpose. We need to make Northern Ireland work. I have never understood why the Minister's party has chosen to describe Northern Ireland as a "failed statelet". As the Minister is probably aware, the first rule of marketing is that, whatever you are trying to sell, make it easy to buy. If we are going to have a referendum — a border poll — in the Republic, what is attractive about saying to people down there, "We want you to put your hand in your pocket to the tune of, say, €2,000 per person per annum to buy a failed statelet"? That is not very attractive to me. Let us work to make Northern Ireland work, to make it a more attractive place.
The Budget will go with a draft Programme for Government that is based on outcomes; there is outcomes-based accountability. That idea was invented by a man called Mark Friedman, who wrote a book entitled 'Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough'. Mr Friedman came to this Building before devolution collapsed and addressed the Committee for the Executive Office. He told us about how outcomes-based accountability government works. One of the colleagues whom he brought with him was a retired politician from Canada. She talked about her provincial Government at one point having to impose austerity measures, including a 10% cut across the board for every agency in the criminal justice system. She said that those agencies — the police, the court service, the youth service and probation — all sat around a table and decided that a 10% haircut across the board was not the best way to do business, so they went back to the provincial Government and said, "OK, cut the amount that you want to cut, but don't make it 10% per organisation. Don't cut that organisation at all. We'll take 15%. They'll take 17%. You get the same saving, but, we reckon, we'll deliver a better service than a simple 10% across the board". That is what they did, and they delivered a better service. That is my test for the Budget, the Assembly and the Executive: are we mature enough to say, on occasions, "Cut me a bit more, because the greater good will be served by not cutting him or her"? That is a big challenge, but, if we rise to it, we will deliver.
Alfred Nesbitt and Company Limited finished a long time ago, but my father kept a few bits and pieces at home that survived the fire. In my office upstairs, I have a blank invoice, and it reads:
"A Nesbitt & Co Limited, Linen Manufacturers".
Underneath that line, my grandfather had something printed that proves that he was a curmudgeonly old Victorian. It said:
"Deduction of odd pence not allowed".
Maybe that is the problem here politically. Maybe we need to deduct the odd political penny between our parties; maybe a little spirit of generosity will go a long way.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister and the Finance Committee's Deputy Chair for their contributions. I speak as the Alliance Party's finance spokesperson. I wish to comment on general expenditure issues relating to the Bill, but, before that, there are important governance issues that need to be addressed.
There has been limited time to scrutinise the Bill, but Alliance will support the Bill and the accelerated passage due to the realities that we face following the restoration of the Assembly just over six weeks ago. However, we seek ministerial assurance that the granting of accelerated passage will not set a precedent. A statement from the Minister about how the lateness in approaching all of these matters will affect the setting of the regional rate and the dispatch of rates bills would also be useful, alongside a pledge that we will not again be in the same position, leaving it to the last minute to strike a regional rate and post out bills.
As the Budget Bill we are debating today states, a Budget (No. 2) Bill for the full 2020-21 financial year will be done by the Assembly in June on the basis of a Budget position agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive, so, today, we are largely looking back rather than forward. One aspect of our budgeting that has been commented on by others is the fact that we are again dealing with short-term, one-year budgeting and the problems, the missed opportunities and the silo departmental working that that involves. I ask the Minister for assurances on when multi-year budgeting will arrive, what planning work will be necessary to deliver it and how effective consultation and engagement will occur to ensure that multi-annual budgets are shaped by the needs of communities, people and businesses. I make those comments in the context of the Budget Bill that we are debating today and the lack of opportunity for effective consultation and engagement. The move towards multi-year budgeting is something that all of us would want to support, but we want to make sure that that is the way that communities can be engaged with and their views ascertained.
In considering the matters in front of us and looking back on the expenditure that has occurred for which legislative authority is being sought, there are many issues that we could touch on. Yesterday and today, we have witnessed discussion on a wide and varied range of topics. The "sins of the last Executive", if I can quote the Finance Minister, were often recalled yesterday and have been recalled again today. There are many sins, not just from the last Executive but from many before. It is not true that there are only some sinners in the Chamber; there are sinners on both sides of the House. As Mr Storey might agree, there are many sinners throughout the Chamber.
RHI, Red Sky, Research Services Ireland and the social investment fund: the list is long and becomes even longer when you consider the many Audit Office reports and PAC inquiries. Many of the scandals have been investigated, and one is the subject of a public inquiry. The need to learn lessons from each to ensure that the mistakes are not repeated is something that the public rightly demand. People are understandably angered when the mistakes of the past are repeated. The independent fiscal council detailed in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, which was understandably pushed for by the UK Government and Treasury, will play an important role, but it is no substitute for leadership by MLAs. We can have all the oversight mechanisms that we want, but, unless the Assembly, the Executive and Ministers are prepared to deal with difficult decisions, we are just sailing ahead, taking on water and going towards the rocks.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. I am happy to talk about sinners and the remedy for sin, but I will maybe leave that to another day in the House.
Will the Member accept that, although we can make decisions in this House, we need to answer the question of when we are going to have the public inquiry on the back of the Audit Office report? I referred to that matter yesterday. How many times do we have to repeat it? It makes the RHI look like a small piece. It is a figure of £700 million, not as a result of the mistakes that politicians made but something more fundamental. Kieran Donnelly has made it clear. Are we going to ignore that? Are we going to continue to go over the same old mantra and the same old stuff that we hear in this House day in, day out? It is action we need; it has to be right across the piece; and, maybe, on 13 March, Judge Coghlin will give us the eye-opener that will be about not only the political problems but the institutional problems.
Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his intervention. Obviously, it is for Ministers to take action on the establishment of inquiries. I note that some Ministers have been reluctant to do that in relation to some very serious issues such as illegal dumps. I think that it is important that all Members, especially those on the PAC, fulfil their role of providing that scrutiny.
The reality is that the luxury of dodging difficult decisions is now firmly gone. If there is anything that the last financial year should have taught us, it is of the price being paid by not taking decisions and how that affects services, workers, the public and businesses. Failing to take decisions affects everyone. Frankly, it is a dereliction of duty. We cannot legitimately go to the UK Treasury looking for more money when we are not willing to look in our own backyard and sort out the scandals in our midst.
RHI, Red Sky and others are indeed scandals, but, arguably, the biggest scandal that we have always faced is the cost of division. Tackling the cost of division is by far the most significant, long-term financial challenge facing this Executive and this Budget. Estimated previously to be up to nearly £1 billion a year, in the context of the current financial circumstances, we find ourselves in the position where the imperative to act is not just moral or ethical but financially unavoidable. Either we fail to act and shamefully see public services collapse or we pick up the courage and prove to the public and Her Majesty's Treasury that we are at last willing to take the difficult decisions to transform lives, attract investment and ensure that spend is focused on objective need rather than to maintain age-old sectarian divisions. That is the challenge of this Budget, and that is the challenge of this Assembly within this mandate.
Mr Storey: Will the Member call St Mary's College a sectarian project?
Mr Muir: No, I will not, but my point is about tackling the cost of division and the reflection of our history. We need to make sure that we are building a future that is a shared future. It is about taking those difficult decisions. We have a very, very divided society, and we have to be able to challenge that and to transform that. There are lots of different projects that have either been avoided or been pushed back upon, and we need to be able to take action on that.
The costs of division are many but are perhaps broken down into four categories: direct costs, such as policing of disturbances; indirect costs, such as providing duplicate goods, facilities and services for separate sections of the community, either implicitly or explicitly; hidden costs, such as the pressures on the housing sector from demographic imbalances; and the opportunity costs of lost inward investment and tourism. I welcome the Finance Minister's recent statement in the form of a written response detailing:
"The New Decade, New Approach document acknowledges the significant challenge that arises in seeking to tackle the financial burden associated with delivering public services in a divided society.
As set out in the document, I would expect that, in developing new policies and, over time, in reviewing existing ones, the Executive will take steps to eliminate all such costs. In the first instance it will be for individual Ministers to ensure that the services they provide are appropriate and cost effective."
I welcome that statement, but we need more; much, much more. A programme of ambitious actions and resulting savings is one way, I hope, that Executive Ministers could proceed. As the Member outlined, I feel that, for example, the Minister for the Economy needs to bring forward plans for a single teacher training college. We cannot keep avoiding those issues. Let us see the Minister of Education ensure that the independent review of education provision gets cracking and delivers prompt and ambitious recommendations that everyone in this Chamber is willing to act upon. The additional costs of our education system can no longer be afforded. Similarly, shared housing should be the norm going forward.
I did not join the Assembly to see things trundle along as they have done in the last financial year and as part of the budgeting process. I joined to change things, to achieve a new Northern Ireland where we can live, work and socialise together, devoid of the old divisions carved out in the past and in which we live in the present.
Many young people cannot understand why we continue to pour in thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds to sustain a divided society when change is possible. It is up to us to ensure that the financial year ahead is different and that the one that is about to pass is not repeated. We cannot afford to allow that to happen.
Mr Givan (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): My first remarks will be made in respect of the Justice Committee, and I will then move on to speak in my role as an MLA for Lagan Valley.
The Committee has not yet had an opportunity to undertake detailed scrutiny of the Department's budget, but we received an overview briefing on its budget position. That included key budget allocations for 2019-2020 and details of the pressures and challenges that the Department expects to face in the next financial year. We have also received overview briefings from departmental agencies and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It is in that context that I wish to comment.
In respect of the 2019-2020 Budget, the Committee understands that the Department of Justice was provided with funding to cover a range of pressures in 2019-2020. That included £32 million towards employer pension contributions — an issue that applied across other aspects of public service — and £11·3 million for pressures, including legacy inquest proposals. The Police Service received allocations in the region of £42 million in-year for issues such as tackling paramilitarism, additional Brexit funding and injury on duty.
The additional funding for injury on duty was reallocated internally from other easements in the Department of Justice's budget. The Department also surrendered approximately £3 million in the last monitoring round, primarily from compensation services and other end-of-year easements. Taking all that into consideration, the Department has advised that it is on target to remain within budget for the remainder of this financial year.
Moving into the next financial year, the Department informed the Committee that it faces pressures in the region of £67·3 million to stand still. Correspondence from the Minister to the Committee appears to suggest that that amount represents the minimum level of financial pressures facing the Department’s budget. The Police Service alone has cited pressures in excess of £53 million. That relates to pay pressures, injury on duty, estate maintenance backlog and essential provision of body armour and helmets.
The Minister has advised that a number of the pressures facing the Department — for example, legacy-related costs — are too significant to fund from its own budget, and resources for those will be sought from the centre. Those figures have, therefore, been removed from the £67·3 million pressures quoted to the Committee.
Leaving aside those issues for which funding will be sought from the centre, the anticipated pressures equate to 6% of the Department’s opening budget position for 2019-2020. This will obviously be very challenging, and it is difficult to see how pressures of this level can be absorbed without impacting on delivery.
The development of the Executive’s Programme for Government will provide an opportunity for the Department to clearly set out its priorities. The Committee fully intends to make sure that resources are aligned to achieve maximum impact and better outcomes for the public. Invaluable work on the pilot substance misuse court, the development of a mental health court and case progression officers to address the causes of offending and to ensure cases progress more quickly through the justice system are welcome initiatives, but funding will be required to sustain them. Funding for the substance misuse court originally came from the Department of Finance's cross-cutting programme, but the Department of Justice has now taken on responsibility for financing that project.
In addition, the 'New Decade, New Approach' document includes a range of commitments for the Department of Justice, which, at this early stage, have not yet been fully costed and for which additional funding is as yet unclear. The Committee has been informed, for example, that the annual cost of 600 police officers, once recruited and trained, is £40 million, but there may also be associated costs of more staff to support the additional officers and capital requirements for additional fleet vehicles. The Minister advised that she will be able to commit to take forward the New Decade, New Approach commitments only when the Department of Justice has received sufficient funding to manage its existing inescapable pressures.
The Department is likely also to face additional funding requirements that relate to our exit from the European Union. It is essential that all available Brexit-related funding be drawn down so that the Department and its bodies will not be expected to provide funding from its normal budget.
Finally, I want to draw attention to the cost of providing the separated regime in Northern Ireland's prisons, which is estimated to be in the region of £2 million a year. The burden falls on the Department of Justice, but it is the Secretary of State who makes decisions on the separated regime. For that reason, the Committee has written to the Secretary of State to request that the cost be transferred to the Northern Ireland Office.
The Minister of Justice confirmed that in addition to further briefings on the 2020-21 budget, which will take place over the coming months, her Department will engage with the Committee regularly throughout the year. As a minimum, that will happen in line with in-year monitoring schedules, but there will also be engagement on any other specific issues that the Committee wishes to discuss. The Committee looks forward to more detailed engagement with the Department of Justice on those matters. I have no doubt that the Committee will interrogate them. I have no doubt that the Minister of Finance and his Department will, as they engage in bilaterals, also interrogate departmental bids. I am sure that all Departments make bids in a properly costed fashion, but it is always good to have a fresh look at those. I am sure that the Department of Finance will do that, as will Committee members, to ensure that the figures stack up.
I will make some broader points now. In doing so, I remove myself from speaking in my official role as Chairman of the Committee lest some of my subsequent points be controversial and not necessarily reflective of the Committee's views. It is important that we look at a wide spectrum of issues that face the justice system. Legacy is one, and it is cited in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. Initial costs for that were £150 million, which, I think, nobody regards as being anywhere close to what, ultimately, will be necessary. Leaving aside what, ultimately, will come out of the legislative processes, it is vital that, when it comes to the financing of all that, it does not fall to the Executive and Department of Justice to fund it. These are cases that need to be made and that relate to the past. Until we deal with the past, it will continue to insert toxic poison into our future. It needs to be addressed, but the cost should not be to the detriment of the present.
I want to raise some governance and audit issues that have been mentioned by many. I do not intend to rehearse them, because we can be in danger of navel-gazing and trying to score points. My party can do that against Sinn Féin and other parties. They can do it against my party, and so that cycle would continue. The public expects us to try to deliver for them in the here and now, and to move on from that. I will just say that the RHI report has not yet been published. I have noted a lot of commentary from Members opposite, including the Minister whose Department commissioned the inquiry. I am surprised by the level of the Minister's commentary, given that the report has not yet been published and its findings have not yet been made public by the judge. Yes, there is the court of public opinion, and journalists have commented widely on it, but Members would do well to wait until we get the independent final report. We certainly believe, as our leader says, that there are lessons to be learned from it. We will also have to look at it with regard to other people and parties, not just the current Minister, who, I know, sat on the former Minister for the Economy when this was being handled. I would be surprised — not that I know — if he has not had to give evidence to the inquiry, yet he has gone on to make comments about it.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member is straying into the territory of doing what he criticises others for doing. Maybe he could make his remarks in the context of the Budget Bill.
Mr Givan: I will certainly do that. It is important that we await the outcome of the inquiry. There will be governance issues in how the Budget will be taken forward.
Mr Givan: Let me just conclude the point. Then, I will be happy to give way.
The report will also reveal issues that my colleague for North Antrim mentioned, which relate to capacity and competence in the Civil Service. It is right that we await the findings, because it will have implications. Advice that current Ministers receive may well come from some of the very officials who could be named in the report, and the findings might be against them. We would do well to await the report's final publication. I give way to Mr Frew.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. He will know that a Budget is very important for running Northern Ireland and for this place. The fact is that we did not have a Budget from the previous Sinn Féin Minister, and the excuse used today was RHI. How does the Member find that explanation? Is it not the truth that the reason we did not have a Budget from the last Sinn Féin Minister is because it would have been riddled with Tory austerity and that party could not face bringing a Budget because of the pressure that People Before Profit were bringing to them in their heartlands?
Mr Givan: I welcome that this Minister is bringing forward a Budget. I note that the previous Minister is not here. I met him in a ministerial role that I had, and he indicated to me that he would be around for a very long time and that it would be very important to have a very good working relationship with him because he was going to have a big future when it came to the government of this place. I note that he is not here to take that forward and that he did not bring forward a Budget.
I will raise some issues from the Lagan Valley constituency. I will touch on three themes that relate to the Budget. One is education, something that is very important to all of us here. I serve on the board of governors of three schools: Pond Park Primary School; Ballymacash Primary School; and Laurelhill Community College. When it comes to looking at the budget for the future, we can see that pressures are faced not just in those schools but, as Members will know from their own constituency, exist on the budgets for all our schools, so there is a need for greater resource through the capital and current funding that is provided to our education system. When the Education Minister makes the case, as I have no doubt he will, to the Finance Minister, he will say that there is a need for additional resourcing.
The common funding formula is a very complicated formula with multiple layers that award funding to particular schools. The age-weighted pupil unit needs to be increased across the board, and the other factors attract additional funding. As an example, the principal of Maghaberry Primary School, a school in my constituency, has spoken at length at various public forums about the funding issues facing that school. The school has fewer than 10% of its pupils with an entitlement to free school meals, and when it comes to providing the budget that is needed, it is wholly inadequate, yet it is at full capacity. Here we have a school that meets the need of the local community, meets the criteria for what the Department says is necessary for a sustainable school in the future, yet the budget is not meeting the need, and that is something that needs to be addressed.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. For many years we have had the view that the use of free school meals is a blunt instrument that actually creates other inequalities. In fact, it discriminates against those schools whereby now they find themselves in the position that, even though their numbers, as you outlined, are in a strong position, the funding is not reflective of that. So numbers no longer guarantee that you will have the financial resources. I certainly will await the outcome of a review that I understand the Minister of Education is doing. I hope that one of the issues coming out of that review will be addressing the imbalance that there is in the use of free school meals as a blunt instrument to deal with how you fund our schools.
Mr Givan: The Member makes a valuable contribution. I know that, from his previous role in education, he knows more about this issue than I do. The issue with free school meals has a read-across not just for the Budget, but in being a criterion that is used in the referral of children for psychological assessments. If you need to be assessed for special educational need, class is no discriminator, yet it is when it comes to the allocation of assessments. Maghaberry Primary School is allowed to put forward only one pupil because it has fewer than 10% of its pupils with an entitlement to free school meals. The school is in a part of the constituency that is not regarded, like other parts of this Province, as being a particularly affluent area, yet the system that is in place is not meeting the need. We need more resources put into education as a whole. We then need to ensure that the way in which those resources are divided up is fair and equitable. I make the case to the Finance Minister that the funding of education should be a priority.
In terms of capital, many schools require basic maintenance to be carried out, yet there is not the funding available to meet that need. We need to put in more money to build new schools. In my constituency, Dromore High School needs a new building for 1,000 pupils, and enrolment in its catchment area continues to grow. The capital for that needs to be made available to the Department of Education.
Special educational need presents a huge problem for the Department of Education. In Lagan Valley, the number of pupils who have a statement of special educational need now sits at 1,109. In 2015-16, it was 946. The number is therefore increasing, and that creates additional pressure, because the school has to provide the necessary funding for classroom assistants. In Lagan Valley alone, just short of 4,000 children are on the special educational needs register. All require individual educational plans, and resources have to be provided for those who meet that need in schools, but there is not the funding available.
Ms Armstrong: Given the special educational needs pressures in his constituency and mine, does the Member agree that it is fundamental that we have a root-and-branch reform of education urgently to make sure that those children are provided with the best possible education to meet their needs?
Mr Givan: I do. Reform cuts across many of our public services. Doing things in the way in which we have done them in the past is not going to free up the amounts of money that we need for the future. Those who require special educational need assistance must have that need met. There is a legal obligation that assessment should be carried out within 26 weeks. Currently, 2,108 children are being assessed for a statement of special educational need. Of those, 944 have waited longer than 26 weeks — that is 45%. There are valid exceptions that justify why some have to wait longer, but within the 944 who are waiting longer than 26 weeks, over 50% do not have the exceptional circumstances that justify the wait. Those children are being failed because there is not the resource on the psychological side of the Education Authority to meet their needs. When they do not have their needs identified, interventions cannot then be made. The difficulties that the children encounter then need to be addressed later in life, if they are addressed, and with that comes additional cost. All of the evidence shows that early intervention is a better outcome both for the individual and for public resources, because the need is met earlier.
Another funding issue that I want to touch on concerns a sporting infrastructure capital scheme that I would like to see developed. The £36 million subregional stadia programme goes back to a 2011 Executive commitment by the Executive. That programme is additional to the regional stadia programme, which dealt with the three main sporting stadiums. The Minister will hopefully be able to roll out the subregional stadia programme. However, we need to see a new programme developed, where, at grassroots level, sporting clubs can get the capital that they need to provide the facilities that are increasingly in demand.
I will give one example. The Minister was able to visit Ballymacash Rangers Football Club, which has developed a sports academy. The first phase of the project, costing approximately £450,000, is nearing completion. A number of phases need to be rolled out beyond that, but in order to do that, we need to have a capital fund available. I would like to see, within the Department for Communities, a scheme developed for small capital programmes of that nature. It is important that the way that it is devised and the criteria which are used are looked at. There are a number of recommendations that could be considered, one of which is partnering with local authorities to try to incentivise the sharing of the capital schemes. Tying in the sports bodies so that they have to make a contribution as well is something that I would like to see take place, but also community partnership. Many of us face requests from constituents. They say, "We need this facility". They make an approach to central government —
Mr Givan: I will give way in a moment. They make requests to local authorities. Often, the question is, "Where do you get the funding from?". The example that I cited, Ballymacash, developed a community investment scheme. They raised £112,000 through the local community, which is in a working-class estate in a loyalist area of Lisburn, buying into the model through a shares-type scheme. They raised £112,000. Very few community groups will ever come forward with that type of model, and we should be trying to incentivise it. When I look at the Budget for future provisions, I would like to see a scheme that incentivises that.
Mr McCann: Does the Member agree that added to that are the serious problems that have arisen for many local clubs by the IFA's demand that they have to improve facilities or face going out of the league? Part of what he is talking about needs to be fitted into whatever provision is made.
Mr Givan: I agree entirely with the Member. New standards are having to be met to get access to particular leagues and, if you do not meet them, you are not able to take part. When those new barriers are being created, albeit some of them for justifiable reasons, we need to have support. The sporting bodies have a responsibility themselves. Some of them have a significant amount of funding coming in, and they need to be designing schemes as well, but that partnership approach between central government, sporting bodies and local authorities would help take us to another space with regard to the kind of community infrastructure that exists. When we look at addressing things like —
Mr Givan: I will in just a moment. When we look at addressing things around well-being, mental health and community cohesion, all of us can show examples in our constituencies where these organisations provide a purpose for people. If we want to try to give people a motivation and an aspiration, we need to have the infrastructure in place within those communities to do it. That is why we need a scheme like this that can try and do more than what we have been doing so far.
Mr Humphrey: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I very much agree with the comments that have been made about the moneys for sports grounds and intermediate league standards and so on, but equally I agree with the comment that the Member made a short time ago about moneys and a joined-up approach across government and local government. However, when the edict comes from UEFA to the Irish Football Association, and it passes that on to clubs, the association must also make some provision. Indeed, it should provide finance, as happens on the mainland with the English FA. These clubs cannot be expected to fund this on their own. I have raised this issue on many occasions with Belfast City Council, and will do so again on Friday, because councils simply do not have the money to meet the obligations that are being set down in an arbitrary way by UEFA.
Mr Givan: The Member is absolutely right. It needs to get down to that grassroots level, not just dealing with the bigger sporting clubs within whatever sporting fraternity they are operating in.
Mr Givan: I will, but I am not going to take any more interventions because I realise I have probably been speaking for longer than I had anticipated.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. He raises a very good issue with regard to youth football clubs which maybe cater for nine to 12 teams, with hundreds of children involved, as opposed to a football team with a squad of 15 to 20 players. There is a massive difference. Youth football needs to be supported. I commend Lisburn for its youth set-up. My two sons played right throughout youth football and played many a time in the Lisburn leagues on a Saturday morning.
Mr Givan: As did I, back in the day, Mr Deputy Speaker. Again, the Member makes a very important point.
The final point that I want to raise relates to infrastructure development and the capital requirements, not just on the resource side. I want to speak about my experience of the procurement process and the time that it takes to deliver schemes. In my constituency, I highlight, in my constituency, the need to increase the car-parking facility at Moira train station. The Executive and the Assembly rightly want to encourage the use of public transport, yet, if you go to use Moira train station, you have to park way up the public road, towards the main street. How will we encourage more people to get on our trains if we do not have basic park-and-ride facilities? Capital resource needs to be given to that kind of development, but we also need to look at the delivery of it. The situation at Moira train station has gone on for years. Development junctions in my constituency should have been delivered many years ago. One of them, in the Ballymacash area — there is a planning issue associated with the Lisburn and Dunmurry 1 (LD1) development area — still has not been delivered, and that is creating problems. It is not just about finance but about the systems in place for the delivery of the finance that ultimately gets allocated to it.
In conclusion, I make one final point in respect of the Brexit issue, which some Members have touched on. When we look at that issue, we see that it is important that we do not have the barriers North/South. We do not want to have barriers on a North/South basis, but neither do we want east-west barriers. When it comes to demands that may be made around infrastructure requirements to do with checks and so on, I do not believe that the Executive should be responsible for funding that. The Assembly voted unanimously against what has ultimately transpired when it comes to Brexit, so we should not pick up the financial implications of any of that. It is important that the Finance Minister makes the case to Treasury, if he is not already doing so, that any east-west issues should not fall on this place to deal with. That includes not just public services but the private sector. Any regulations that may require checks and regulatory burden should not have a financial impact on either the public or the private sector. I welcome the commitments made by the First Minister and by the deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. When they were in Cardiff, Michelle O'Neill said that we do not want any barriers to trade in our local economy, and that was in an east-west context.
My final point on that is that the Member of Parliament for South Down seems to be making some contradictory remarks in respect of the implementation of the Ireland protocol.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I venture that we should restrict our comments to the Bill. I have given you fair latitude, but we have to restrict our comments to the context of the Budget Bill that is before us, please.
Mr Givan: The Speaker's Chair has been very generous to all Members, and we appreciate that, Deputy Speaker.
Mr Givan: It is important that we as an Executive and an Assembly have a unified approach when it comes to trying to have that unfettered access in an east-west relationship. If there were any barriers, that would have implications for the public purse in respect of trade. We should take forward that approach. With that, I conclude.
Mr McGuigan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I welcome the opportunity today as vice Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to outline the Committee's views. I understand the similarities between the debate today and the one yesterday, and the Committee Chair does too. Whilst he thought that it was important that the views of the Committee were read into Hansard, he thought that, today, they should be read in with a south Derry accent.
The Committee received an oral briefing from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on the 2019-2020 Budget on 13 February 2020. It was clear from that briefing that preparation — [Interruption.]
I hope that that is not the Chair ringing to give off to me. It was clear from the briefing that preparation for Brexit was and remains a priority for the Department, with £13·9 million of additional money from the 2019-2020 Budget and £312·4 million being allocated for a no-deal Brexit scenario, as well as staff salaries. Brexit has added immense pressure on the Department, so much so that the number of staff required to deal with it is set to rise to 454, alongside staff costs of £23·6 million in 2020-21, if DAERA's Budget requests are successful. A large number of those posts will require staff specialism that currently does not exist in the Department.
The largest cost in the Department from 2019-2020 remains salaries and wages of £125 million, with only £46·6 million allocated to programmes, and I will elaborate on that later. The Department has three non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) — the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, the Loughs Agency and the Livestock and Meat Commission — which require £34·5 million to fund. The Committee heard some detail around the £46·6 million allocated to programmes, the largest of which is around £18·9 million for TB compensation, with a further £8·8 million spent on fees for private vets who carry out the tuberculosis testing. Alongside that, there is a considerable sum spent on testing for TB by in-house vets.
Members noted that the biggest NDPB is the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, with the largest budget totalling £32·4 million. The issue of royalty income from the institute raised a concern specifically about the collection of those royalties and how that has been problematic for the institute in the past. The Committee recognised that that matter is now subject to legal proceedings, and we wait with interest to see how it unfolds.
The Committee was somewhat concerned to hear that there had been reduced requirements in the January monitoring round, with £12 million of resource, £1·6 million of resource depreciation impairment and £4 million in capital being surrendered. Clarification from officials revealed that the £12 million of resource was a combination of money from no-deal preparations, reduced requirement for TB compensation and a number of one-off easements. There was also a sum of £0·9 million of additional generated income from Forest Service and the regulatory aspect of the NI Environment Agency, which was over and above what had been forecast.
Another area on which Brexit will have an impact and on which the Committee will be focused is the Department's budget and replacement funding. That will be a challenge for the Department, particularly in relation to CAP funding, which is currently worth £293 million in the North. While the Committee was pleased to hear that funding had been secured for this year from the British Treasury, we are concerned about what will happen in following years. EU replacement funding will come directly from the British Treasury, but questions remain over how much we will get as a percentage share and whether it will be ring-fenced. In addition to that, there are questions about the prosperity fund and its role in replacing rural development funding.
The replacement of the animal and public health information system (APHIS) is a serious area of concern for the Committee. That system allows farmers to register cattle movements and other matters and is a vital component in ensuring compliance with animal health and traceability measures. It has great importance in our international agri-food trade. In 2016, the Department commenced a project with the aim of introducing a new system known as the NI food animal information system (NIFAIS). There was an expected completion date of 2018, but, because of major concerns with the contractor, including a high level of software defects, the deadline was missed. To date, it has cost £10·9 million. The Department has requested a further £2·3 million in its capital bids for the 2020-21 Budget, and the Committee will continue to watch with interest how that situation unfolds. We have requested further information and expect to be kept up to date on progress as time allows.
The Committee realises that many rural areas and communities have poor internet connectivity due to unreliable and slow broadband. That is an unacceptable situation that is particularly concerning when the Department is encouraging farmers to complete forms online, use the APHIS system and reduce paperwork. Effective access to broadband can also help with issues such as rural isolation, which has a knock-on impact on physical and mental health. We consider the Department's allocation of funding to Project Stratum and rural broadband as vital for our rural communities and look forward to hearing about its progress.
From an environmental perspective, the illegal dump at Mobuoy is a major threat to the environment, producing hazardous contamination in the area and beyond. Tackling the problem has been ongoing for some time, and many Members will be aware of that. The Department has submitted a bid for £0·9 million for the Mobuoy remediation project, and he Committee will, no doubt, revisit the issue.
The Committee values the opportunity to scrutinise the Department's planned expenditure and delivery of associated projects. I look forward to hearing from the Department as it continues to update the Committee on all aspects of budgetary information to assist in undertaking that scrutiny. Environmental protection and the climate emergency will be important work in Committee. We hope for funding to address those issues, particularly an independent environmental protection agency and a climate Act, as detailed in the recent new deal, the name of which I forget.
I thank the officials in the Finance Department and the Minister for preparing the Budget and the legislation and the officials in the AERA Committee for preparing the remarks that I have made today.
In my personal capacity, given some of the commentary today and yesterday in the Budget debate, I got involved in elected politics to try to make positive change, to help the most vulnerable in society in a positive way and to protect and enhance our public services. It is impossible to make any comments on last year's Budget, this year's Budget or, indeed, future Budgets without talking about 10 years of Tory austerity in the North and its impact on our public services, particularly health, education and transport. As an elected representative for over 20 years to this and other institutions, I have to say that it has been noticeable, particularly over those 10 years, the negative impact that those budgets have had on the most vulnerable. I have noticed that as an elected representative. Unfortunately, the people who notice it more and are most impacted on by this policy are those coming to my constituency office who are on long waiting lists, unable to get care packages for their loved ones and struggling to feed or clothe their families, not to mention the lack of investment in our schools, as many Members have pointed out, and the impact that that has on the education of our children. There are also clear problems in our infrastructure and roads, there is a need for increased active travel, and there is the vital need of climate emergency and investment against climate change.
That is the impact of 10 years of Tory austerity and, I suppose, 100 years of partition. I noticed, in yesterday's debate and again today, a false sense of smug satisfaction about the state of the UK economy and how good it is. There was no mention of the impact on our public services here, on our vulnerable and on our working class.
Ms Dillon: Does the Member agree that that just proves the point that this was British Tory policy and nothing to do with not having the money to invest here?
Mr McGuigan: I agree, and I will mention that later. I was saying that the silence in relation to that, perhaps from some Members opposite, was because of their embarrassment at having in previous years supported austerity budgets in the North and propped up a Tory government and at their relationship that allowed that to happen.
The mark of any great economy, if you want to talk about it in those terms, or any Government or institution of power has to be measured by how it uses its wealth and treats its citizens. We talked endlessly yesterday and again today about choices or mature decisions. Cutting public services, which adds people to a waiting list, keeps people on trolleys in hospitals, damages our education, diminishes transport, impacts on our climate, increases food banks et cetera is not a hard or mature decision: it is a bad decision. They are bad decisions for us, they are bad decisions for the people whom we represent, and they are wrong. Tory austerity may be the choice of that political party, but it should not be ours.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Order. Sorry to interrupt you in full flow. The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time. The debate on the Second Stage of the Budget Bill will resume at 3.30 pm, when the Member will resume his contribution.
The debate stood suspended.
The sitting was suspended at 1.00 pm.
On resuming (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair) —
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the Member to ask the first question, I must inform the House that oral question 12 and topical question 5 have been withdrawn.
Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance): The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated the net fiscal balance to be £9·7 billion in both 2016-17 and 2017-18 and £9·4 billion in 2018-19. However, about £3 billion of that relates to so-called non-identifiable spending. That is made up of things like British Government debt repayment and military forces, which are not specific to this region. There is also an accounting adjustment of over £3 billion that is attributed to the North. Setting that aside, that leaves a gap of £3·3 billion between the revenue that is raised locally and expenditure that is clearly identified as benefiting citizens here.
Mr Givan: The figure of £9·7 billion and the most recent one of £9·4 billion as being benefits that Northern Ireland has as being part of the United Kingdom — they show the wealth that that great Union brings to this place — are of significant value. The figures would equate to the budgets of the Departments of Health, Education, Justice and Communities combined if we did not receive the support that we do from the Treasury. Given that the debt that exists for the Irish Government is the third highest in the world per capita at over €200 billion, given the crises in health and housing that led to his party getting the election success that it did and given the research that the University of Liverpool carried out that shows that support for Irish unity is only 29%, is it not time that Sinn Féin got off the issue of a border poll and moved to making this place work for the benefit of all our people, with this country remaining within the United Kingdom?
Mr Murphy: I congratulate the Member for managing to ignore the answer that I gave him and go on with whatever he intended to say. It is a skill in itself.
The ONS says that public spending that directly benefits citizens here is £21·8 billion, while the taxes raised here are £18·5 billion. That, for me, is the immediate gap of £3·3 billion that needs to be bridged, and that is why £9 billion is not the reality in cash terms. ONS adds in that a share of that money is spent by London on things like defence and British Government debt, and then it makes a complex accounting system to make the books balance overall. That is not spending that the Executive or most of our citizens would ever see. While I know that he wants to cling to the larger figure, it is actually just an accountancy process. As ONS, which provides that £9 billion figure, says, the difference between what is spent directly for citizens here and the taxes raised is £3·3 billion.
Mr O'Toole: On a related topic, the Minister has talked a little bit in the past about the creation of an independent fiscal commission a little bit along the lines of what they have in Scotland. There are a range of views and depictions of public spending in Northern Ireland and its position relative to the United Kingdom Exchequer. Does the Minister agree that an independent fiscal commission with proper statutory underpinnings and economic forecasting powers will be able to give some clarity to the fiscal position of Northern Ireland in the long term?
Mr Murphy: I thank him for his question. There are two propositions at play here. One is a fiscal council that provides the type of service that he outlined, and it is important, because one of the issues we have dealt with here for some time is the fact that there is no clarity around taxes that are raised here and no clarity on some of the bigger corporations that do a lot of their business here but actually declare their tax returns in London. Of course, we need to ensure that we are spending well and that we are forecasting. It appears to me that quite a lot of the information provided or available to the Executive and to Departments is limited in their understanding of what our tax returns might be in terms of spending forecasts. Any organisation that can assist us in that would be of benefit. There is a commitment under New Decade, New Approach, as there was under previous agreements, to establish a fiscal council. There is no real meat on the bones of that as yet, but we intend to bring forward propositions on it.
I know that the Member has asked about this before, but we also intend to bring forward a proposition for a fiscal commission that can look at the tax-raising and tax-varying powers that might be available to us.
Mr McCann: Does the Minister agree that the Member for Lagan Valley has focused on outdated opinion polls that completely distort the opinions of people throughout this country and that the vast majority of opinion polls now point in the other direction, not only to a border poll but to Irish unity? [Laughter.]
Does the Minister agree that there is a need to improve data on public finances in the North?
Mr Murphy: Yes. That follows on from my previous response on the creation of a fiscal council. As a former Chair of the Economy Committee, I was aware that, when setting its economic policy, the Department for the Economy did not have access to all the data that you would think it would require, such as data on projections and data to understand the taxes produced in its jurisdiction. There is insufficient data available, and we need to look at ways of strengthening our access so that we can find accurate data. That is a job for the Executive.
On your first point, there is an old adage that goes, "First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you". I think that they are in the second phase, as they are laughing at you. [Laughter.]
Mr Allister: Whereas the Minister's creative accounting may be exceeded only by the creative fiction of Mr McCann, will the Minister detail why, in response to Mr Givan, he compared the figure of tax raised with the £21 billion resource spending, instead of comparing it with the figure that is in the ONS document of £28 billion of public-sector expenditure? Of course, that is the gap that he cannot explain and can never fill, and neither can the country that he aspires to be part of.
Mr Murphy: Given our exchange yesterday, I prepared a further explanation. That is another accountancy exercise that puts a cost of depreciation against our capital assets. What I have referred to is money that is available for people here to spend, as opposed to taxes that were raised here. The gap is £3·3 billion. Those are ONS figures. You cannot accept one part of them and then dispute the other. The ONS was very clear in its figures. The additional money that you referred to is made up of things such as assessing and costing depreciation against our assets.
Mr Murphy: Uptake of the lone pensioner allowance scheme has increased annually since its introduction in 2008, with £6·99 million being awarded during the 2018-19 rating year. The scheme is jointly administered by Land and Property Services (LPS) and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
During 2018-19, LPS provided support to 29,841 lone pensioners who own and occupy their own home. That is an increase of 48% on the 2009-2010 position. LPS regularly attends outreach events such as the Pensioners Parliament and Young at Heart, at which LPS staff take time to explain the relief to citizens who may be eligible to apply.
Ms Bunting: I thank the Minister for his answer, but 29,000 out of our population, given our number of senior citizens, is not significant. Does the Minister find that acceptable? Does he think that more can be done? What will he do to promote the scheme?
Mr Murphy: We should bear in mind that it is not a means-tested scheme, so it applies to all pensioners. Some may be aware of it but consider that they do not necessarily need to access it.
The scheme was introduced in 2008. LPS has issued leaflets with rates bills and placed 'Help paying your rates' booklets in libraries and GP surgeries. It has also issued posters for display in a range of public places, including all LPS and Housing Executive offices, and provided online help through nidirect web pages and the Housing Executive website. It has also engaged in partnership working with the voluntary and community sectors and collaborated with other Departments, such as on the Department for Communities' Make the Call scheme. LPS also communicates through departmental social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter and attends claimant stakeholder events. There has been a range of measures undertaken.
If the Member is aware of any deficiencies and thinks that improvements can be made or that there are areas that LPS is not reaching that might yield more people who are entitled to the benefit, I and, I am sure, LPS will be more than happy to hear from her.
Mr McGuigan: I thank the Minister for schooling some Members on the finances of the North. I look forward to discussing on other occasions the finances of a united Ireland, but, for today, will the Minister introduce rates relief for rural ATMs?
Mr Murphy: There was a scheme until very recently that provided rate relief for rural ATMs. I think that that requires further legislation to continue it. It is certainly something that I will consider, but we are trying to consider wider rates schemes in their entirety because, clearly, there is enormous pressure on certain sectors as a consequence of rates, and we are trying to ensure that we have the fairest possible system. Everything will be in the melting pot in that discussion, including further legislation to extend rate relief to rural ATMs.
Mr Nesbitt: If I heard the Minister correctly, he said that LPS's outreach includes going to the Pensioners Parliament. As I understand it, the Pensioners Parliament no longer exists because of a lack of funds. Would the Minister of Finance like to fund a revival?
Mr Murphy: You cannot blame LPS for funding the Pensioners Parliament. To be quite honest, I am not sure how it was funded, but I would be more than interested. I had some engagement with it in my constituency a number of years back; it was a very worthy thing. If you want to be pinned to your collar with questions about a whole range of social policy areas, the Pensioners Parliament is the place to go, I can tell you. I am disappointed to hear that it has been discontinued. I would be more than supportive of somebody bringing forward a proposition to reinstate it.
Mr Murphy: The recent work to revise the text of the ministerial code has been led by the Department of Finance with political parties as part of the political talks process in the transparency, accountability and governance working group. The latest revisions will detail the accountabilit