Northern Ireland Assembly: Executive Committee Business: Budget (No. 2) Bill: Final Stage (27 Jun 2016)

I thank the Member for her question. Maybe she was not here when the First Minister spoke earlier and outlined that strategy. In fact, I think that that common purpose does unite us, but let me just say again what I have said in the media several times: in my view, the majority of people in the Six Counties voted to remain in Europe, and that vote should be respected and recognised. I do not accept the right of anyone to drag us out of Europe. I will stand by the best interests of the people here and make common purpose with anyone from any part of this House or elsewhere who wants to stand with me in doing that.

I think that I will leave Ms Pengelly’s comments, since she has left us, except that she did mention the memorandum of understanding. For other members on the Committee, we are still working on a memorandum of understanding about the Budget process. Work is proceeding. It is not proceeding as quickly as we might want it to, but I hope to have that memorandum of understanding in place.

It is good to be back at the dance hall with Mr Smith. He is back where he was: at the slow dance. He was saying that no one else has a plan for the economy, but unfortunately he has no plan for the economy either. He is now telling us that we have no plan post-Brexit, but he has no plan either. What I would suggest on both counts is that he should come forward with his alternative plan for growing the economy and let us assess it and take a decision on whether it is a cogent plan or a plan which does not hold water, and let us and the people then vote on how sensible that plan is. The Achilles heel of Mr Smith’s argument is that I can say, hand on heart, that no one in my party voted for Brexit, but I can also say that I stood outside Botanic Primary School with a member of the Unionist Party who was canvassing and urging people to vote “Leave”. If you have some advice on how we should respond to Brexit, I suggest that you first speak to your own members who were telling people that it was in their interests.

Of course, the second fault line in Mr Smith’s argument is that while he bemoans austerity — he certainly decries my attacks on austerity — his party supports it. I have seen no evidence yet that he will oppose resolutely the austerity coming from London — the 4·5% decrease in our resource budget between now and 2021, or the cut in our budgets from 2010. You cannot have your cake and eat it on this one, Mr Smith.

Either you need to tell us that you are opposed to austerity and will oppose it, or you have to admit that you accept that the Tories in their wisdom — mar dhea — have the right to assault and cut our budgets.

I absolutely stand over the outcome and processes of the June monitoring round, and I think that the public will endorse that. Some people said that it was a June monitoring round in June, which, in itself, was praiseworthy. Not only was it the fastest June monitoring round but it delivered over £170 million into services and needs, which our people were requesting. If that is not a good way to do business and he wants to go back to horse-trading and stop-start, I am afraid that I am not an advocate of that. Whether or not, of course, we have the same type of money in our budgets in October for the next monitoring round is another matter.

Other Members talked about the effect of Brexit, and Mr Farry touched on it. This is a 2016-17 Budget, and it is my hope that it will not be affected by the Brexit vote. That said, that should not be taken to mean that I do not think that the damaging effects of Brexit will not be felt immediately. I think that they will be felt immediately. A lot of decisions are being taken in business, and I am not going to relay conversations that I have had with other people, which perhaps would prove my point, because I do not think that this is the place to do it, but there are conversations taking place even day that indicate to me that the impact of Brexit will be immediate and will not be helpful, and I will not say any more than that. So, you never know, the October monitoring round could be an attempt to minimise some of the damage of Brexit. That said, I think that the budgets will hold. There may be some extra money needed to help people to deal with the aftershock of Brexit. If so, we will have to deal with that in the monitoring round, but I think that this Budget holds.

That said, there is no chance that we can proceed with our budgets for the period ahead as we had hoped to later in the year oblivious to Brexit. Brexit is the most damaging, fundamental change that we have seen in our economic circumstances in 40 years. It would be unwise, and I say this again in relation to corporation tax and all the other issues, for any of us to proceed ramstam into the future thinking that the plans that we had on Thursday are good enough for today. So, let us take stock together, let us assess where we are and let us proceed confidently to protect our interests but not be naive about the huge damage, chaos and crisis that has been triggered by Brexit.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt do mo chomrádaí, John O’Dowd, as aird a tharraingt arís ar an dochar a rinneadh le linn na géarchéime eacnamaíochta a thosaigh in 2007. I thank John O’Dowd for pointing out that many of our woes date back to the economic crash, and, in fact, the irony is that Brexit perhaps has its roots in the crash of 2007-08. I look forward to looking at all the options ahead. If that includes prudent borrowing, so be it.

The reform programme that he and I defend has been a success thus far. Some £4·5 million was allocated in the Budget to take forward the programme during 2016-17, and, during 2016-17, the programme work will focus on undertaking feasibility studies to establish the full potential of each reform. Our mission is to improve our services and to be more effective, but can we do it at a lower cost so that we can free money up for education, the economy and other matters?

Ms Hanna returned to the Budget that she does not like but does not have an alternative to. She is not sure that the £1 billion that we had promised for health will be sustainable. I share that. It has been echoed by everyone in this House that money alone will not resolve the deep-seated problems in the health service. Therefore, when we spend money in the time ahead and make sure that the health service has the financial resources that it needs, we are cognisant of that. It is to the fore of our minds that money alone will not solve the problem. I agree with that, but I say again that, if the SDLP or Ms Hanna have an alternative to this Budget, I would like to see it, and when we do see it, we can make up our mind on whether it is anything other than a wish list.

As the Minister of Finance, I state again, as I have stated many times, that I would like all the fiscal levers, not just corporation tax but income tax, air passenger duty and stamp duty. I would like all those taxes. The issue is what we do with them when we have them, and I stand behind that, even as we assess the landscape ahead.

Ms Hanna said that she opposes the Budget Bill because the Executive are not investing enough in our infrastructure and in childcare. I think that you will find that our infrastructural investment will increase. There have been years of unprecedented cutbacks in capital expenditure because of the Tory policies and the allocation in the spending settlement, but I think that you will find that infrastructure will be increased. As for childcare, let us not forget the flagship projects. I know that we have a Member who wanted to stop, I think, all seven flagship projects previously, but let us not forget the new women and children’s hospital, which demonstrates our commitment to improving and building on our services to women and children.

Some Members mentioned working closely with our colleagues in Scotland and Wales. I have met the Finance Minister for Scotland, Mr Mackay. Some of us were calling him Mr Mackie, but I was informed recently that it is Mr Mackay. I also met Minister Drakeford from Wales. We have had one useful meeting. I met each of those gentlemen. We have a lot of issues in common, not least our belief that, when we speak together for 10 million people, the Treasury does listen. However, our meetings took place pre-Brexit, and the urgent need to meet again is not lost on any of us. I spoke to Mr Mackay on Friday. The three Ministers will meet in Cardiff on 11 July, and, as you might expect, all the issues that we had on the table are now being relegated, and the exit from the European Union is being brought to the fore and will dominate our conversations. I do not know whether Ms Hanna or someone else brought it up, but the Chancellor, George Osborne, requested that meeting. That might give you an indication of the depth of the crisis because, for the last three years, he has been refusing to meet us. It is essential that we meet Mr Osborne. It is equally important to me that we meet the Finance Minister in the South, Mr Noonan, and Mr Donohoe, who handles public expenditure, because we need to make sure that those who are on the other side of the negotiating table with the 27 states not only understand where we are coming from but will defend, as Mr Farry said, the fact that a majority here voted to remain. That is at the front and centre.

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