HL Deb 10 February 2003 vol 644 cc10-4GC

3.39 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.

Again, it is a matter of regret that this legislation is not being considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The purpose of the draft order is twofold. The first is to authorise the use of £306 million resources and £422 million cash for the year 2002–03. That builds on the amounts previously authorised, as set out in the main estimates for that year, and will take the total amount authorised to £10,503 million resources and £9,320 million cash.

The second purpose is to authorise a vote on account to allow funds to continue to flow to public services for the early months of the next financial year until main estimates can be presented and considered. For that, the draft order seeks the authorisation of Parliament for the use of resources amounting to £4,762 million and for the issue from the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland of the sum of £4,195 million.

In general, the cash and resource required on account for 2003–04 is of the order of 45 per cent of the 2002–03 total voted provision and, as its name implies, the vote on account is not intended to seek final approval of the allocations for 2003–04. We are simply seeking sufficient resources and cash to allow services to proceed until the detailed work on the main estimates has been completed in the late spring.

If your Lordships approve this tomorrow, they will not be pre-empting the decision of the Assembly on any final allocations for the 2003–04 budget, as only 45 per cent of the total proposed budget is being sought. The details are given in the spring supplementary estimates and the vote on account, copies of which have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

I shall not go through the detailed changes on a line-by-line basis as the introduction to each departmental estimate within the supplementary estimates book sets out in detail the main changes for which approval is being sought. Certainly, if Members of the Committee wish to raise matters of detail, I shall do my utmost to respond in writing at a later stage. Copies will be sent to all noble Lords who have an interest in Northern Ireland and further copies will, of course, be lodged in the Library.

In relation to the next financial year—2003–04—the cash and resource totals represent a vote on account pending the bringing forward of main estimates in early summer. A vote on account at this point in the financial year, prior to the year in which the cash or resources will be used, is a normal feature of government financial management. It arises because, following the approval of the budget in December, detailed work must be undertaken by departments to disaggregate and allocate resource requirements for individual purposes—often through very narrowly defined line entries.

There will be an opportunity for a further and full debate on the detail of the main estimates in early summer. I commend the order to the Committee.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Glentoran

I thank the Minister for that explanation. I also take this opportunity to thank the officials, who were very patient in trying to explain to me, as someone who is completely ignorant of this level of national financing, how the budget may or may not work.

In relation to the order, ultimately I came to the conclusion that the first part—the £4,195 million—has already been accounted for and that decisions have been made by the Assembly as to how it should be used. As the noble and learned Lord explained, decisions are not ready to be made on the detail or allocation to departments in respect of the larger sum for the year 2003–04, and that is the sum likely to be required to run Northern Ireland for the year 2003–04. That is as far as I was able to understand the national accounting procedures relating to the order. However, it seems to be very satisfactory.

Lord Smith of Clifton

Of course, if we do not back the order, the good governance of Northern Ireland will come to a complete standstill. Tempting though that might be, we must nevertheless support it.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My question will be an ignorant one, but it is my test of whether I have understood matters. It appears that the figure that appears in paragraph 8 is 45 per cent of £10,503,229,000. It appears in paragraph 8 as £4.7 billion and is the amount authorised. Paragraph 6 states: The Department of Finance and Personnel may issue out of the Consolidated Fund and apply to the service of the year", the sum of £4.195 billion. Does the difference between the two figures represent accrued resources? If not, what does it represent?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

The noble Lord is right, and I am deeply grateful to him. That avoids any further explanation.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said—self-deprecatingly, as always—that he had found this a minefield. I must join him and say that I hope that we shall not both be caught in it.

Lord Glentoran

I have one last question. In which budget is the money with which the previous order was concerned accounted for? Is it in the 2003–04 budget, the 2002–03 budget or neither?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

It will be included in the detailed figures that will be subject to the debate that I said we would be able to have on the main estimates in the summer.

Lord Rogan

The Committee will be relieved to hear that the few remarks that I want to make will be of a less technical nature. Once again, I register my regret that the budget for Northern Ireland is being considered here as an Order in Council. Given the huge sums involved, it would have been more satisfactory if Northern Ireland Assembly committees had been able to scrutinise the budget in more detail.

As the order lays out, Northern Ireland can expect a fairly rapid increase in spending. In cash terms, the departmental expenditure limits—the amounts allocated from the Treasury for the 11 departments—will increase by 6 per cent from 2002–03 to 2003–04, by 5 per cent in the next year and by 6.3 per cent in the succeeding year. Some departments will receive even greater increases for the coming year. For example, the budget for agriculture will increase by 13 per cent, for health by 14 per cent, for the environment by 10 per cent and for culture, arts and leisure by 10 per cent.

The need to direct finances in Northern Ireland towards security and peacekeeping over the past 30 years resulted in chronic underspending on our infrastructure. Although the Assembly has sought to redress that imbalance and improve our severely run-down services, the experience of devolution so far has been that departments tend to over-bid for money, which results in money being left unspent. The Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 will, I hope, go some way to reducing that underspend and encourage more efficient budget management.

A novel approach was taken to setting the budget for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. The DETI's 2003–04 allocation, for example, was set as a range rather than a fixed figure. Uniquely, the DETI's budget has a large discretionary element—a range of £40 million—to take into account the difficulties in predicting how many deals will be agreed throughout the year and at what price. The DETI will be able to draw on that range when required. Such greater flexibility is to be welcomed.

Despite substantially increased spending on health over the past few years—by some £600 million per annum—and maintaining a greater per capita expenditure on health than in England and Wales, there appears to have been little or no improvement in the services available for people in Northern Ireland. Although we clearly welcome the 14 per cent increase for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, we seek assurances that that money will be spent appropriately, that it will be directed to where need is greatest and that, finally, it will accrue the improvement in services that the people of Northern Ireland so richly deserve.

The Ulster Unionist Party believes that education should be a priority area for funding. We are concerned that many schools are struggling with funding difficulties on an ongoing basis and are facing teacher redundancies to avoid going into deficit. Funding is urgently required to ensure stability and a satisfactory provision of the core curriculum to all pupils. Currently £100 million is required to bridge the funding gap between schools in Northern Ireland and those in England. We shall continue to support the use of public/private partnerships and private finance initiatives where necessary and to support the capital build programme. But we wish to ensure that in education conventional funding has primacy and will still form the most important element of Department of Education funding.

Investing in education and skills is one of the key priorities in the executive's programme for government. We therefore welcome the addititonal £10 million that was found for university research, but we ask that the Lord Privy Seal consider the problems facing Stranmillis College and St Mary's College. Neither has received funding for research. Indeed, under new regulations, they will be marked down in the next review because they do not have research facilities.

The increase in funds for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is also to be welcomed. It is long overdue and will go a long way to reviving arts and sports across Northern Ireland. We are, however, very disappointed that money has not been made available to meet the need for a film and television commission for Northern Ireland. That is despite the fact that a full economic appraisal and business plan was in place. On the other hand, money was still found for Irish language broadcasts, when there was clearly no immediate need.

I very much welcome the order and the additional funding that it will bring to the departments in Northern Ireland. However, I trust that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal will be able to assure us that funding will be targeted to where it is most required and that it will bring about long-overdue improvements to Northern Irelands services and infrastructure.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am grateful for the responses that have been given. I could not agree more with the noble Lord, Lord Rogan: these are large sums of money. I agree with him absolutely, as I believe do all Members of the Committee, that we would much prefer the Assembly and the relevant committees to be discussing these matters rather than us.

The noble Lord is right that there is a substantial increase in funding for education—a matter on which he particularly focused—amounting to 7.3 per cent. In addition to the existing service levels, the budget includes £52 million to increase the core budgets for schools over three years. It provides £19 million for priority curriculum development, £2.6 million for costs associated with a new cross-border centre for autism, and a real-terms increase of £:3.8 million for the youth service across the period. However, the noble Lord is right: these are very large sums and they are most gratifying.

The noble Lord raised a question which frequently arises in relation to England and Wales: will these enormously increased budgets produce real reform? Again, I believe that that should rightly rest with the elected representatives of Northern Ireland in the Assembly.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Grand Committee adjourned at six minutes before four o'clock.