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Northen Ireland Grand Committee Debates

Draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 2000

Northern Ireland Grand Committee

Thursday 9 March 2000

(Westminster)

[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

Draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 2000

2.30 pm

The Chairman: The only business before the Committee is the debate on the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 2000, which may continue for up to three hours. I have no powers to restrict speeches. Nevertheless, I implore colleagues to make short speeches so that everyone who wants to speak may do so.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): I beg to move,

    That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee has considered the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 2000.

Details of the sums sought are given in the spring supplementary estimates booklet and the statement of sums required on account, which have been placed in the Library and are available from the Vote Office. I regret that the order is being considered here by such a process instead of by locally elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, while we await the restoration of the Assembly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and I are responsible for seeing that good government is maintained. We must, therefore, once again seek Parliament's approval for the detailed appropriation of funds for key public services. That should be one of the Assembly's most important tasks. Indeed, it was about to undertake it for the first time when suspension began. I hope that it will not be too long before the Assembly is permanently restored and the benefits of a devolved administration are fully realised by all the people of Northern Ireland and, indeed, elsewhere.

The draft order has two purposes, the first being to authorise expenditure of £193 million in the 1999–2000 spring supplementary estimates. Before suspension, the Northern Ireland Executive Committee reviewed the spending plans for the current year and made a series of adjustments, resulting in revised allocations for various services. That is reflected in the supplementary estimates: there have been no changes since suspension.

If the order is approved, it will bring the total estimates provision for Northern Ireland departmental services to £7,595 million for the current financial year. The order's second purpose is to authorise a vote on account of £3,539 million for the next financial year. That has been generally calculated as 45 per cent. of the anticipated net 2000–01 main estimates provisions in the budget which was agreed by the Executive and presented to the Assembly last December. That will enable the services of Northern Ireland departments to continue until the 2000–01 main estimates are approved—hopefully, later this year by the Assembly.

The Assembly was in the process of scrutinising budget proposals for the forthcoming financial year when it was suspended. One of its key tasks is consideration of the annual budget, which it has the right to modify. If the Committee approves the vote on account today, it will not necessarily pre-empt the Assembly's decision on final allocations for the next financial year, as less than half the total proposed budget is being sought in the draft order.

However, budget holders in the health service, schools and all other key public services must plan and commit resources now if they are to discharge their responsibilities properly. At present, they are working with the Executive's budget proposals on a provisional basis, as will continue to be the case. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State currently has no plans to alter the outline budget. The longer that restoration is delayed, the less opportunity there is for the Assembly to modify spending plans, as resources will, in effect, have been allocated.

I expect our debate to be comprehensive and wide-ranging. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and I will cover as many points as we can and any that we cannot cover will be followed up in the usual way by writing to members of the Committee.

I wish to make two points before turning to the details of the estimates. First, I must advise the Committee that we cannot account for policy decisions that were taken by the Executive Committee and its members during devolution. That remains a matter for them and not for my hon. Friend and I. Secondly, I remind the Committee that the draft order does not—I repeat, does not—cover expenditure by the Northern Ireland Office on law and order and other services.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): Under those estimates, there is a district rate, part of which relates to the police. Is that correct? If it is, can we talk about the police?

Mr. Ingram: Usually, what can or cannot be dealt with in Committee rests with the Chair.

The Chairman: Order. I was about to intervene on the hon. Gentleman. He is right. Yes, there is a district rate and it does refer to the police. But the order refers to central Government expenditure in Northern Ireland, not to local government expenditure. It is not in order, therefore, to discuss the police or security services.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): On a point of order, Mr. McWilliam. For the benefit of the Committee, local government expenditure does not cover policing in Northern Ireland. It is a matter for central Government and that may alter your view.

The Chairman: I am well aware of that, but local taxation is certainly not part of the order.

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful for your ruling, Mr. McWilliam, but knowing the ingenuity of Opposition Members, they will find some way in which to weave in issues that are relevant to them.

The Chairman: Order. If members of the Committee try to weave in something that is out of order, I shall tell them that they are out of order.

Mr. Ingram: I fully appreciate that, Mr. McWilliam. I was about to finish my sentence by saying that such members of the Committee would be subject to your strict scrutiny. I am sure that if I deviate from the order, I shall be sharply brought into order, if not by you, Mr. McWilliam, then by Opposition Members.

I shall try to keep my comments about the spring supplementary estimates as brief as possible to give other members of the Committee the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Full details of the many changes to which I shall be referring are contained in the spring supplementary estimates booklets that have been provided to members of the Committee. To help them in their consideration, I shall refer to the relevant page numbers as I proceed.

On a technical point, some of the votes seek token increases only because new pressures have been offset by equivalent reduced requirements elsewhere in the same votes. I refer now to the estimates. In vote 1 on pages 5 to 7 of the estimates booklet, which provides for Northern Ireland expenditure on United Kingdom-wide agriculture support measures, a net addition of £10.5 million is sought. That is an example of how the Government have responded positively to special circumstances. It includes £8.5 million in respect of the special aid package payable under the hill livestock compensatory allowance and £2 million to cover higher than anticipated demand for the environmentally sensitive areas scheme.

A further £4.1 million is in respect of agri-monetary compensation for the beef sector and £3.5 million is for hill livestock compensatory allowances. Agri-monetary compensation is designed to offset the effects of currency appreciation on agricultural support prices and compensation payments that are set in euros.

In vote 2 on pages 8 to 13, covering local agricultural support measures, a net increase of £5.4 million is sought. That includes £10.2 million in respect of controlling outbreaks of animal diseases, including tuberculosis and brucellosis. The additions are offset partially by reduced requirements elsewhere within the vote.

Token increases of £1,000 are sought in votes 3, 4 and 5, which cover economic development and training. In vote 3, on pages 14 to 16, £13.3 million is sought by the Industrial Development Board to meet pressures on industrial development grants from increased claims from client companies. A further £1 million is sought for industrial development promotion to allow the board to build on the success of its overseas marketing campaign and to maintain the momentum of promoting Northern Ireland as a good and competitive investment location. Those increases are offset by reduced requirements and additional receipts elsewhere in the vote.

A token £1,000 is also sought in vote 4, which is on pages 17 to 22. In that vote, which covers other economic support measures, administration, energy and miscellaneous services, increased requirements are offset by savings elsewhere. Additions sought include £500,000 to assist with the setting up costs associated with the new Equality Commission and to meet pressures on the Office of the Industrial and Fair Employment Tribunals.

In vote 5, on pages 23 to 26, covering the Training and Employment Agency, a token increase of £1,000 is sought. As in vote 4, reduced requirements and additional receipts will offset those increases. The adjustments include a redistribution of resources under the new deal to meet changing demands and pressures.

In vote 7, on pages 28 to 34, covering expenditure on roads, transport and ports, a net increase of £1 million is sought. The main increases are £6 million for roads maintenance and £2 million for capital expenditure on the vehicle information system of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. There is also increased provision of £1.9 million for Northern Ireland Railways and £900,000 for works at St. Angelo airport in Fermanagh, as well as an additional £7.9 million for current expenditure on the Roads Service. Those increases are largely offset by a reduction in capital spending on roads and increased receipts.

In vote 9, covering the Water Service and related services on pages 34 and 35, a net increase of £3 million is sought, mainly in respect of running costs for the Water Service that have been brought forward from 1998–99 under the end year flexibility arrangements.

A net increase of £8 million is sought in vote 10 on pages 36 to 42. Included in that increase is a further £1.6 million for expenditure on urban regeneration and £600,000 to assist Omagh district council with costs incurred following the tragic bombing in 1998, as well as additional running costs brought forward from 1998-99 under end year flexibility arrangements. Those increases are partially offset by additional receipts.

In vote 11, on pages 43 and 44, an increase of £1 million is sought for fire services, reflecting the carry forward of underspend in 1998–99. In vote 12, on pages 45 to 53, covering expenditure on education and related services, a net increase of £53 million is sought. That is mainly due to a £70 million reduction in receipts, previously forecast because the third UK sale of student loan debt was not proceeded with. The Treasury has made good the resulting deficit from the reserve, so there is no loss to public services in Northern Ireland.

In addition, there are increases of £33.9 million for school and library books; £3.5 million for school and further education maintenance; £2.8 million for tuition fees and grants to students; and £2.6 million for the Odyssey Millennium Landmark project. Those increases are partially offset by reduced requirements of £11 million on student loans and £4.5 million on the European Union peace and reconciliation programme.

 
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