Draft Budget (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004

[back to previous text]

Lady Hermon: In fairness to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, I must say that the criticism that was attached to it about homelessness related to a confined period. The executive has done a great deal for the homeless, especially for those who have suffered from domestic violence in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Lidington: I am willing to accept the hon. Lady's assurance on the basis of her considerable constituency experience. Individuals have been helped by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, but the terms of the Northern Ireland Audit Office's report and the way in which the Public Accounts Committee then assessed the evidence and reported on it to Parliament were stark. I am not denying that much good work has been done, but there were serious flaws in the way in which the Northern Ireland Housing Executive addressed its task of devising a homelessness strategy. The fact that it took 14 years to devise such a strategy tells a story in itself. Will the hon. Lady reflect on how much more could have been done to help people in need had the executive carried out its work with the diligence and efficiency that the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee considered was proper and possible?

I turn now to the money and time lost through staff sickness in the Northern Ireland Departments. I acknowledge that, during and after the troubles, those in the public service in Northern Ireland would have gone through considerable stress and trauma. As Members of Parliament know, employees in some arms of the public service can face a difficult time with unco-operative members of the public. Nevertheless, having made that qualification, the figures in the Minister's written answer on 29 June should cause every member of the Committee considerable anxiety.

For the last available year, 2002–03, the figures show that sickness absence was responsible for the loss of the equivalent of £39 million to the Northern Ireland Departments. Four agencies had absence rates of more than 20 days per staff year. If we add to that reasonable leave entitlements and entitlements to public holidays and bank holidays, on average they would have suffered a loss of nearly 10 working weeks during the year. That would have placed huge pressure on the staff and would have produced problems for their clients. In more than half the Departments and agencies listed, the figures for absence were worse in 2002–03 than they had been in the previous year.

As the Minister said, it would be possible for the debate to range widely and in great detail through every aspect of public expenditure in Northern Ireland. Besides ensuring greater efficiency in the deployment of public expenditure, I have one case to

Column Number: 012

make in particular: the Government need to reflect long and hard about whether the policy that they are adopting will be conducive to high-quality public service. I do not wish to pre-empt what the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) may wish to say in the Adjournment debate.

Lady Hermon: It is enormously generous of the hon. Gentleman to take a second intervention from me. Before he completes his remarks, I ask him to reflect on something that has happened in Northern Ireland: the ongoing civil service pay dispute. A Minister has described the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance as being dishonest in its methods. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the impact of that on the many good civil servants in Northern Ireland, who feel constantly undermined and undervalued by the Government? Would not that situation cause wear and tear to anyone turning up for their job?

Mr. Lidington: It is important that Parliament holds Ministers to account for the performance problems that I described. It is for Ministers to hold the senior management in their Departments to account to ensure that the best public services can be provided to taxpayers. As for the dispute that the hon. Lady mentioned, there is no doubt in my mind that it is causing serious inconvenience and economic dislocation for at least some businesses and employees in Northern Ireland. It is in the interests of taxpayers, civil servants and the Government for the dispute to be ended as soon as possible. I hope that that will be the outcome, and that it will be achieved quickly.

Before the hon. Lady intervened, I was about to say a few sentences about education. I share the Minister's wish to ensure the highest-quality education throughout Northern Ireland, and his wish to ensure that the public money spent on education delivers the best possible service to children and their families. However, the experience of England in the 1960s and 1970s suggests that to pull down a selective secondary system that delivers results will not produce the improvement in poorer-performing schools for which the Minister—honestly and honourably—wishes.

I fear that the Government are, for ideological reasons, embarking on a course that was tried a couple of decades ago on this side of the water. It did not deliver the improvements in standards sought and hoped for, and it consumed vast amounts of taxpayers' money through reorganisation programmes. It would be in the interest of all the people of Northern Ireland for the Government to think again about that policy.

In conclusion, I believe that people in Northern Ireland are entitled to expect that every available pound will be spent on improving their services. Money that is wasted, whether through fraud, error or unnecessary bureaucracy, is money denied to pupils, patients and all citizens in Northern Ireland. When the Minister considers how the programmes that he has announced are to be administered, I hope that he will take urgent steps to ensure that the problems and difficulties that I have described are cut out of the system, so that when Parliament considers a new Northern Ireland estimate in six or 12 months' time, we can say with much greater confidence that the

Column Number: 013

money is getting through to the people on whose behalf it is being spent.

3.9 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): It is a pleasure and a novelty to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cran. There is no doubt that we will benefit from the experience.

I will first comment on the Minister's opening remarks. I concur with the desire that he expressed for the return of devolved government to Northern Ireland as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the will of the people of Northern Ireland, as expressed at the ballot box, has to a large degree put off that day. However, that is the democratic process that we must all endorse and support.

I agree that the development of budgetary policy and provision is best served in the community if it is in the hands of the community's representatives and formulated and delivered by people who live and experience Northern Ireland life in the constituencies. I know that the Minister will not be offended by my making those remarks. I therefore find it difficult to comprehend how a Minister here manages several distinct and disparate Departments in Northern Ireland at once. Perhaps it shows the superiority of the English, or British, brain over the Northern Ireland brain, but I doubt it. As a consequence of that—and through no one's fault, but because of the failure of a political process—we have less of a handle on the budgetary policies and processes than would be desirable for the benefit of Northern Ireland.

The Minister mentioned excesses so much that I thought he was referring to Government excesses, but unfortunately he was referring only to financial excesses—that is, surpluses left over from the previous fiscal year's budget.

The Minister referred with some vigour to the possible introduction of water charges. I would like to put a marker down by saying that I, and those I work with and represent, are implacably opposed to the duplication of water charges as a separate tax in Northern Ireland. We have already been paying those charges—although we have never had a definition of the quantum of that payment—through regional rates, which are the equivalent of water rates. Such duplication cannot and must not be tolerated. I want to flag that up as a difficult course that he will have to run if he chooses to leave the starting gate on the issue.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) mentioned the failure to support the ''love for life'' campaign. I wrote to the Minister a few weeks ago, and the kernel of his reply—I hope that I am not misrepresenting him—was that the Government could not support the campaign not so much because there are no funds for it, but because it is a private enterprise. That may be so, but if a private enterprise has expertise, experience and quality of service, there is no reason why those should not be purchased by a Government for a good purpose.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government seem to be expert in consulting consultants and spending large sums of money in

Column Number: 014

private enterprise? The argument that they have given therefore does not stand up.

Mr. McGrady: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I concur with him. I have a poor opinion of consultants because they simply deliver the report that is asked for—they tell people the time by asking for their watch.

Mr. Trimble: I was going to demur slightly at the use of the term ''private enterprise'', although I think that the Minister's term is ''commercial enterprise''. Both terms are unfair and inaccurate when dealing with a charitable organisation that has been formed for this purpose. The persons who are engaged in it are, in many cases, taking remuneration well below what they earned before they formed the charity. To call it a commercial or private enterprise is a gross distortion of the facts.

Mr. McGrady: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that clarification and his clear explanation of his opinion of the difference between private enterprise and charity. The reason given to me in writing, however, was that the campaign is a commercial enterprise, and the charitable aspect of it was not mentioned or regarded in any form.

The Minister addressed our key issues in his opening remarks. He will forgive me for being parochial for the moment, but my ears have either pricked up or fallen down, depending on how people look at it. In mentioning the capital funding for hospitals, he did not include my pride and joy, the Downe hospital in Downpatrick, no doubt because its funding has already been designated and ring-fenced. I hope that he can reaffirm that.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who presented the Opposition's case, mentioned public administration, and the Minister intervened, saying that he will produce a consultative paper in October and, hopefully, a legislative programme by Easter 2005. I admire his optimism and pray that he gets a fair wind.

However, the whole reorganisation of public administration in Northern Ireland—from local government to education and library boards, to the 100-plus quangos and non-governmental organisations—is a mammoth task and so sensitive in our community that it will require extremely careful handling to ensure that there is full community awareness that it is happening, participation in its fulfilment and assurance that the democratic process is sustained and, I hope, enhanced by it. I wish him well and look forward to the consultation. It is very optimistic indeed to hope to provide such a detailed review in about six months, but that's as may be.

The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) made an intervention on the NIPSA strike, and the Minister will recall that during the last sitting of the Grand Committee I asked him for his personal intervention on that. The consulting parties met again yesterday. The NIPSA report from that meeting is that the core issues were not addressed.

I asked the Minister whether he would consider a personal intervention, because I get the impression

Column Number: 015

that the strike, which is economically and socially damaging and expanding detrimentally, seems to involve senior civil servants negotiating with less senior civil servants. If that is so, it is not a great formula for resolution, which is why his personal involvement would assist matters.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury spoke about the reports of the Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Office in respect of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and all its works and pomps. The intervention by the hon. Member for North Down put some reality into what he said, and I, too, emphasise that. Often, Committees of the House cannot assess the impact and feel what is happening on the ground in Northern Ireland. For example, homelessness can be expanded dramatically in a week by a period of riots and violence, where whole streets are sanitised—that is the new in-word—by one group or another. That creates an upsurge in homelessness and in the costs of providing accommodation for those people, in whatever facilities are available, such as hotels and so on.

We must be sensitive and caring when criticising in that respect, which is not to detract from the legitimate criticism of maladministration, mis-administration or non-administration, which take place in every Department of every Government in the world. Northern Ireland has a fairly good record.

I know that you are looking at me, Mr. Cran, so perhaps I should deal with the budget per se, although that is an expansive canvas on which to paint. Last Tuesday, the Minister announced a surplus of £220 million that is being held over from 2003–04 to this year. I was somewhat startled by the heading of the press release, which contained the key words ''acceptable level'' and ''no money lost''. I want confirmation from the Minister that no money is lost, and I am not sure that this is an acceptable level. One could use statistics to say that it is a small percentage of the overall budget, but it cannot be a small percentage of what I would call the moveable budget; the non-fixed, standard on-costs budget is a much smaller fraction of the total budget. As an accountant, the Minister will know that. The fraction involved could be much greater—that is in the context of a non-spend of £220 million, some £111 million of which relates to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, which is crying out for funding every day of every week.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South mentioned provision of front-line services. I know from my surgeries that my community has no ability to provide care for those who need it. The care cannot be provided because there is no funding to provide it. I find it difficult to accept that £111 million can suddenly become unspent, when there is this crying out by the disabled, the elderly and those who cannot even be discharged from hospital because there is no—I emphasise, no—money left to provide any services for them.

We have a double difficulty in my community because for years there has been a miscalculation of

Column Number: 016

funding from the Eastern health board to the Down and Lisburn trust. Our provision is way below the average for neighbouring trusts. Although that is being made up, it is not being done at a rapid enough rate to achieve equality. While we climb towards equality, the other trusts are going beyond and on to further advantageous inequality. That has to be addressed as well.

I would also like to comment on the misappropriations, either through mismanagement or fraudulent claims. The total for that must be about £121 million-plus—£10 million for one Department, £8 million for another. This argument has already been rehearsed by the hon. Member for Aylesbury. We should look at the issue in much more detail and not simply say that this is an acceptable financial loss. It should not be so, and nor can it be. The matter should be addressed much more urgently. The Government have constantly pledged best value practice in this context, but in some Departments there appears to be an inability to achieve performance of best value, and that is where the leakages, as I shall call them, are happening.

I want to address a further issue, which has caused me great personal distress. The Department for Regional Development and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development issued a joint statement the other day. They said that no money would be paid to the farmers who were denied their traditional grazing rights in the Mournes because of an edict issued by the Department of the Environment three years ago.

Both Departments and both Ministers told me time and again that interdepartmental talks over three years decided the scope and nature of the assistance, yet the press release said that no financial aid would be given—full stop, end of story. I take that very much amiss. Those farmers and their families have been grazing the Mournes for generations. Leaving that aside, they have current grazing rights, which the Department has prevented them from exercising. Therefore, they have suffered a substantive financial loss throughout the economy represented by their own farming. They have to take other land. There are reduced subsidies, because there is not the headage that was on the grazed land that they formerly occupied. The Government are simply washing their hands of this, but there is money—I note that there was a surplus in the relevant year of a mere £17.9 million. Well, a small fraction of that would pay the compensation; why are we not doing so? That is to be greatly regretted.

We also have to deal with two broad areas: regional development and the road transport structure. Over many years there has been a concentration—quite rightly, up to a point—on the major road networks in Northern Ireland. Most of, if not all, the capital funding has gone into those, to the neglect of the more rural areas of Northern Ireland.

I remember that one Minister, who held the Department of the Environment portfolio, agreed with the concept that priority must be given to major thoroughfares, arterial routes and all the rest, and that a ring-fenced amount of money must available to

Column Number: 017

develop and sustain less-travelled routes—those in the rural communities. That has not been done. Those communities—my own is one—have been starved of infrastructure investment. That is allied to the huge amount that has been spent on railways and the motorways. We have not seen a railway since the 1950s, and railway expenditure would not do us any good. We want some compensation for that in terms of the roads that we have to use.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 8 July 2004