Late last night the Executive met and agreed its draft Budget for 2011-15. I am grateful for this early opportunity to present it to this House. While the Budget document now circulated provides considerable detail, I appreciate that Members are only getting their copies now. This unfortunately is because of the rather late conclusion to the Executive earlier this morning. I now want to say something about the strategic context.
Less than two months ago the UK Spending Review announcement left Northern Ireland facing its most difficult fiscal environment in decades. After years of sustained Public Expenditure growth, the Coalition Government’s proposals will result in real terms reductions in spending across the UK.
Some said agreeing a draft Budget in Northern Ireland would be the biggest challenge that this Executive would face. Many said Executive agreement on a draft Budget in such circumstances would be impossible.
And, Mr Speaker, make no mistake the ability to agree a Budget in such circumstances was a litmus test for this Executive.
But today, I am pleased to present the Executive’s draft Budget for not just one but for the next four years. We have passed the test.
Mr Speaker, this is an important day for the new devolved arrangements. I believe it is the day that the Executive came of age. We have proved that we can take difficult decisions, we have proved that we can reach agreement and we have proved that we can work together for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.
Before I turn to the detail I must thank my officials for the assistance that they have given me in the preparation of the draft Budget. I also thank the Ministers and officials from all the other Departments, as they have assisted over recent weeks and months. This announcement is but the culmination of many months of hard work.
Mr Speaker, this draft Budget is clear evidence of the growing maturity of the Executive. We sought to achieve a complete consensus around the Executive table and while it did not prove possible, no Minister voted to oppose the draft Budget.
With less than six months to the next Assembly election, it was always possible that some would choose to play party politics with the Budget. But the search for unanimity around the Executive table can not hold back the delivery of a Budget which will allow Departments to plan for the future. We may not have a Budget endorsed by all five parties on the Executive but crucially we do have a Budget for the next four years.
In these difficult economic times, this is not a time to play politics with people’s lives. This is a time for us all, collectively, to step up to the mark and to take responsibility for the decisions that we have to take. That is what we were elected for and that is what I have sought to do in constructing this Budget.
But Mr Speaker, may I, in the spirit of co-operation make one comment - Let those who earlier this year advocated the reductions in the level of public expenditure in Northern Ireland, at least play their part in helping to administer these reductions in the level of public expenditure.
This has not been a quick process, but in the most difficult of circumstances it was essential that we took our time and got it right. I believe that we have done that.
Three years ago my predecessor as Finance Minister, Peter Robinson, declared that, after years of Direct Rule the Executive’s first Budget was ‘Made in Northern Ireland’. Today, we face problems and challenges that are not of our making but have sought to produce home grown solutions to the problems that we have faced. The real benefit of devolution is how we react in tough times.
Although the global economic downturn has dramatically changed the financial environment in which we all operate, the priorities we set out as an Executive at the start of this term remain. Our priority in this Budget is to stimulate the economy, tackle disadvantage, protect the most vulnerable in our society and protect front line services.
Members will be aware that it has been a daunting task to deliver this draft Budget. The UK Spending Review announcement on 20th October presented the Executive with a much reduced funding envelope for the coming four year period.
Current expenditure resources from Treasury will decline by 8 per cent in real terms while capital investment resources allocated to us will decline by some 40 per cent over the next spending review period.
But rather than burying our heads in the sand, we took responsibility for our future. We argued the case for Northern Ireland at every opportunity – and we will continue to do so – but when the time came to set a Budget we got on with it.
The task confronting the Executive was to seek to enhance our spending power and allocate the scarce resources at a time when our economy is in recession and our key public services are experiencing ever higher levels of demand from the public.
This has been a long and rigorous process. The Executive, through a ministerial sub-group, examined a wide range of issues directly relevant to the establishment of this draft Budget. I pay tribute to all Members of this group and the role they played in helping shape the Budget.
The issues the group considered included exercises to identify new sources of revenue, options for maximising receipts, constraining public sector pay as well as rationalising the number and scope of public bodies. We also looked at how best to reduce bureaucracy and also assessed a number of proposals for new and increased charges.
The outcome of this work has been incorporated into this Budget and significant additional allocations have been made. Indeed, £842 million has been included in the proposed allocations in the draft Budget, with the remainder to be allocated over the budget period.
We have also identified a number of proposals that have some merit but need to be explored further before they can be definitively included into our Budget position. I know that Ministers will vigorously investigate these proposals over the coming weeks.
The capacity of the Executive and Ministers to think imaginatively in the months and years ahead will play a significant factor in determining how much we can improve on the present allocations.
Mr Speaker, we are also taking significant steps to limit the pressure on public expenditure without affecting front line services. At this time of limited employment opportunity in the private sector it is essential that we seek to protect jobs in the public sector.
That is why we will mirror the UK Government’s arrangements for public sector pay and put a freeze on the annual inflationary increases for all those earning over £21,000 for the next two years. We are also putting in place a moratorium on civil service recruitment other than in exceptional circumstances. I also believe that there is a consensus among Ministers that in these current times all Ministers agree to an arrangement that equates to a voluntary salary reduction.
We are also taking action in the area of the use of consultants. In the last few years the annual spend on consultants has reduced from £42million in 2006-07 to £21million in 2009-10. But we want to go further. For the Budget period, the Executive has agreed a target of year on year reductions of 10% for consultancy spend and all proposed consultancy spend of £10,000 or above will require the specific prior approval of the relevant departmental Minister.
In addition the Executive will take action on Arms Length Bodies or QUANGOs as they are also known. The Budget Review Group will review all Arms Length Bodies against agreed criteria and bring a final set of recommendations to Executive, in anticipation of a final decision before May, to facilitate a Bill to rationalise QUANGOs early in the next Assembly term.
Mr Speaker – there are a number of specific announcements that will be welcomed across Northern Ireland.
In the last Budget the Executive froze the domestic Regional Rate in cash terms for three years. We also deferred the introduction of water charges. As a result the average household in Northern Ireland is £1600 better off over the Assembly term than would have been the case under Direct Rule. While a continued real terms cut in the domestic Regional Rate is unsustainable in the present fiscal environment I am committed to protecting household budgets. I therefore propose that domestic Regional Rates will only increase by inflation for the next four years. This modest increase is well below the trend for the last decade.
Mr Speaker, I can also announce that the Executive has no plans to introduce separate water charges during this budget period.
As a result Northern Ireland householders will continue to have the lowest household bills in any part of the UK.
And we will continue to help business too. I propose that non domestic Regional Rates should also be limited to inflation increases over the Budget period. In terms of industrial derating, I propose continuing, over the course of the Budget, with the 30 per cent cap on the liability for manufacturing.
Unemployment has risen significantly over the past three years and although the rate of unemployment remains significantly below levels recorded in the 1980s, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where unemployment has continued to increase over the past six months.
It is crucial that the Executive reacts to tackle this issue wherever possible.
In response to the growing unemployment problem, the draft Budget agreed by the Executive includes funding for a package of measures to increase employment opportunities.
It is essential that we attempt to maximise job opportunities to reduce the amount of time that people are unemployed. For that reason the range of programmes and policies will focus on those sectors with the greatest scope to maximise the number of jobs created.
The current proposals include a range of measures such as grants for business starts in Neighbourhood Renewal Areas, contact centres, food processing sector, social enterprise, knowledge process outsourcing, enhanced enterprise support to disadvantaged young people and a propel programme for export starts.
The cost of the proposed package of measures is £18.8 million over the next three years and is estimated by Invest NI to result in the creation of around 4,000 additional jobs over that period growing to over 5,000 jobs over the longer term.
This package demonstrates the Executive’s commitment to helping the people of Northern Ireland through the current economic difficulties.
In relation to corporation tax this is a key strategic issue and the Executive will have to take time to deliberate the outcome of the UK Government’s paper on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy.
I am pleased to announce that this draft Budget also contains provision for an assistance package for the Presbyterian Mutual Society savers. This is financed by an additional £175 million of borrowing under the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative in 2011-12 and a contribution from the Treasury of £25 million which is matched by an equal contribution from this Executive. When the proposals are implemented this will put an end to the long nightmare faced by many PMS savers.
The most difficult decision that any Finance Minister has to address is that of resource allocation. What is a difficult task even in benign financial times has proved extremely challenging this year. Ministers have very many pressures on their departmental budgets and the bids advanced by them carried considerable merit.
The key to constructing this draft Budget position was to determine the relative priorities of the Executive going forward.
Our key goal is, I believe, to put in place a Budget that facilitates economic growth and recovery. It is only through economic growth that our wider society can advance and prosper. Being able to offer people jobs, being able to attract foreign investment, to improve the skills base of our young people – these are the bedrock elements upon which regional wealth and prosperity are founded.
This draft Budget reflects that prioritisation. Current expenditure allocated to the key economy departments – DETI and DEL – will increase by 3 and 1.9 per cent by the end of four year period. This will ensure that Northern Ireland is an attractive place for business to locate within and flourish.
Other Departments will also have an important role to play in economic growth going forward. One cutting edge example of this is the growing contribution of NI Screen to the local economy. Northern Ireland has a wealth of creative talent and the Executive recognises the positive impact that major productions have on our economy. We are committed to ensuring that high quality production facilities are in place to foster this growth and we will therefore allocate some £5.0 million to this area.
It is also essential that this Budget reflects the priorities of the people of Northern Ireland. And in this regard no service is more important than the Health Service. That is why, even in the most difficult financial situation the Executive has agreed to afford a degree of protection to the health budget. That is why we ringfenced and put in place full protection for the health element of the DHSSPS budget. Indeed, when factoring in the efficiency targets and service reductions that will apply in the other UK regions I would suggest that the Health Service in Northern Ireland has received the most beneficial settlement anywhere in the UK. It will now be for the Health Minister to determine how best to use those resources. I would expect him to put in place plans to take forward productivity and efficiency improvements in the sector. While we are determined to continue to invest in the Health Service it must be accompanied by the requirement to constantly improve its performance.
This draft Budget also reflects the concern of Ministers to assist those most in need in the current difficult economic environment. The Executive will therefore set up a Social Investment Fund, administered from OFMDFM, that will provide some £20 million annually to take forward specific area-improvement projects in these communities. The Executive will also establish a £20 million Social Protection Fund to assist those in severe hardship as a result of the economic downturn. This Fund, with an initial allocation of £20 million 2011-12 will then draw upon the additional new revenue streams that Ministers are to take forward.
Other initiatives within the draft Budget include a commitment to participate in the Green New Deal – an initiative that will leverage in significant private sector investment – resulting in lower levels of waste, greater energy efficiency and many thousands of new jobs in the local construction industry.
The Executive has also commissioned the Environment Minister to take forward the introduction of a plastic bags levy in Northern Ireland. While the amount of revenue generated, at some £4million per annum, is low – it does bestow significant wider benefits, particularly to the environment.
As I have previously indicated, there is a strong commitment on the part of the Executive to ensure that every possible measure is taken to assist the local economy. When the UK Spending Review was published in October there was much comment on the negative impact that the cut on capital investment would have on our construction sector. In light of this concern, the Executive has agreed to reclassify in excess of £250 million current expenditure into capital investment over the period. This will mean that by 2014-15, capital spending will total some £1.5 billion, reflecting a level of spending recorded in 2005-06. So there are still a significant amount of capital projects to take forward over the next four years and spending in this area will be well above the long term trend.
As a result of our investment many key projects will be able to proceed over the period. They include:
·The new police and fire service training centre
·The Altnagelvin Hospital radiography centre
·The sports stadiums
·The water and sewerage network upgrades.
Mr Speaker, in recent weeks we have heard from those who would suggest that the solution to all of our problems is simply to increase taxes and charge on hard pressed households. This not only fails to appreciate the relatively small portion of our public expenditure that is raised locally but it would also punish those that we are seeking to protect. It is not a path that this Executive will follow.
Our priority has been to protect hard working families, not to punish them through ever higher levels of taxation.
We have constructed a Budget to seek to help people get by as much as possible in this difficult financial environment.
Mr Speaker, Budget Allocations are not the end, but the start of the process. Our real challenge will be to deliver quality public services with the resources that have been allocated to us. This will be more difficult in the present environment than in recent years but I believe that we can rise to that challenge.
The public consultation process will now begin and I urge all members of the public to participate in this process. This process will not be lead by DFP but by individual Departments who will now publish their savings plans and spending proposals. This will allow interested parties to provide the views that will shape the final Budget position that I will bring before this Assembly in February.
Mr Speaker, this has been a most challenging Budget process, but I believe it leaves us with the capacity to deliver quality public services and continue to invest in the future.
We can protect those advances that we have made in recent years in areas such as Free Prescriptions and Free Public Transport for those over 60.
We will continue to have the lowest household taxes anywhere in the United Kingdom.
We are extending the liability cap on Industrial de-rating for the next four years protecting jobs in our vital manufacturing sector.
Despite the reduction in the Public Expenditure available we are continuing to make the Health Service a key priority and providing a better Budget settlement than in either Scotland or Wales.
This Budget honours the financial package for Policing and Justice by ring-fencing its budget and it provides additional funding where it is most required.
It delivers the much needed package to help the PMS savers.
It funds the Green New Deal to deliver thousands of jobs across the construction sector.
And it funds assistance for thousands of jobs to help through the recession.
Mr Speaker, this draft Budget will allow the Executive and Assembly to continue to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
It shows the benefits of local decision making for local people.
It reflects the priorities of the people of Northern Ireland.
It is good for families, good for business and lays the foundation for a better future.
And it demonstrates that Northern Ireland continues to move forward.
Mr Speaker I commend this draft Budget to the House.
Notes to editors:
1.Please see following links to relevant documents: Finance Minister’s Statement - www.northernireland.gov.uk/finance-ministers-draft-budget-2010-statement; Draft Budget 2010 – www.northernireland.gov.uk/budget-2010; Consultation Response - www.northernireland.gov.uk/draft-budget2010-consultation.
2.All media queries to DFP Press Office on 028 9052 7374. Out of office hours please contact the Duty Press Office via pager number 076 9971 5440 and your call will be returned.