Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2006/2007

Date: 16 May 2007



Budget Bill

16 May 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Mitchel McLaughlin (Chairperson)
Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs
Dr Stephen Farry 
Mr Simon Hamilton
Mr Fra McCann
Ms Jennifer McCann
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Declan O’Loan
Ms Dawn Purvis


Mr Leo O'Reilly (Department of Finance and Personnel)
Mr Richard Pengelly (Department of Finance and Personnel)

The Chairperson (Mr McLaughlin): 
I welcome witnesses from the Department of Finance and Personnel to the Committee. Leo O’Reilly is the budget director of the central finance group, and Richard Pengelly is the head of the central expenditure division. Thank you for your patience in waiting for us, gentlemen; we are running just five minutes behind our estimated starting time.

I remind Members and inform witnesses that Hansard is now recording the meeting, and that a report will be published. I offer the usual warning about mobile phones, which can interfere with the electronic sound system.

I invite Leo O’Reilly to make a presentation, after which I will call for questions from Committee members. Leo and Richard, it is nice to see you again. You are very welcome.

Mr Leo O’Reilly (Department of Finance and Personnel): 
Thank you, Chairman. In your opening remarks, you set the context for the meeting, namely the Budget Bill and the associated Main Estimates document. As you said, we are in the middle of a financial cycle, so I will briefly recount the key points of the overarching financial processes that the Department follows. I shall then hand over to Richard Pengelly, who can explain in more detail the actual arrangements and specific content of the Main Estimates documents, which members will receive, and the content of the Budget Bill. Richard will explain the meaning of the content, terminology and figure-work in the Budget Bill, as it contains some very large numbers that need explanation.

The financial system operates on a cyclical basis, the duration of which depends on where one draws its beginning and end. In order to plan detailed allocations to Departments, and to monitor the expenditure of those allocations, a cycle lasts two years. At any point in time, therefore, there are overlaps in the cycles of planning, monitoring and accounting for expenditure.

The core planning cycle lasts two years, beginning in January of year one. Under previous arrangements, Departments began preparing spending plans to start in April of year two. By the summer of year one, Departments would have brought forward a position report through the Department of Finance and Personnel to outline their key strategic spending issues. Committees, including the Committee for Finance and Personnel, and the Assembly then considered the position report.

From March or April in year one, the Department would begin to get detailed information about departmental spending plans. Those plans would have been pulled together during the summer and were published as draft Budget proposals by the end of September or beginning of October. The draft Budget proposals were subject to public consultation and consultation with Assembly Committees, eventually leading to the publication of final Budget proposals by the Executive in December. The final Budget proposals would have been debated and approved — or not — by the Assembly, which concluded the administrative process.

In addition to the administrative planning process, which involves Committees, Ministers, Departments and consultation with outside interests, an important aspect of the budgetary process is that, once decisions about expenditure allocations are made, the allocations must become law, because Departments cannot spend public money without the statutory authority to do so.

We shall be discussing that process this morning. We have broken into the cycle at the stage where the planning process for public expenditure for the year has been concluded at an administrative and political level, due to direct-rule Ministers having taken decisions about public-expenditure allocations for the current financial year. However, the process by which expenditure allocations are made into statutory allocations, which provides the necessary statutory authority that Departments need in order to spend public money, has yet to be concluded. That is the current position.

There is, however, a slight complication. Before the start of each financial year there is a process called spring Supplementary Estimates, which does two things: first, it tidies up any adjustments to spending that have occurred in the course of the financial year just ending; and secondly, it allows Parliament — now the Assembly — to give initial statutory authority to Departments to continue to spend money in the financial year just starting, pending the drawing up of detailed spending proposals and their subsequent translation into a detailed Estimates volume. That initial spending authority was granted to Departments by Parliament in February, allowing them to spend roughly 45% of last year’s allocation. The Departments now require further statutory authority from the Assembly in order to continue to spend money for the rest of the financial year. That is what the Budget Bill is about.

The system might seem bureaucratic, and there is a great deal of technical detail. However, it goes to the heart of the process whereby a democratic Assembly authorises the expenditure of public money and subsequently holds Departments to account for spending that money. Fundamentally, without the authority of the legislative body, Departments cannot spend any money.

Mr Richard Pengelly (Department of Finance and Personnel):
I suspect I could talk for two or three days on the detail without pausing. A key point, as Leo outlined, is the public expenditure process that we call the Budget process as distinct from the legislation.

In the normal course of events, a Budget would have concluded at the end of 2006. There would have been a Budget document that set the spending plans. The document that we have here today reflects those plans. The point I wish to emphasise is that while the numbers are different, the spending plans for the delivery of public services are identical. That is because the budgetary process, as taken forward by the Minister of Finance and Personnel through the Assembly, deals with the totality of public spending in Northern Ireland by all public sector organisations. Estimates and Budget Bills are focused at departmental level, providing statutory authority for departmental expenditure.

The simplest example can be taken from the longer budgetary process, where full expenditure by non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) scores in the process. In the Estimates document, all that will score is the amount of cash that the sponsor Department passes to the NDPB. Although the figure may be different, the actual underlying spending plan for public services and what the two documents seek to provide are identical. That is always a source of confusion both inside and outside the system.

Would it be helpful if I went quickly through the Main Estimates document and explained the various sections and what each of them tries to do?

The Chairperson:
I think so.

It appears from the Hansard recording equipment that some people have either not switched off their mobile phones, or they have them on silent or vibrate, which still causes interference.

Mr Pengelly, it would be best to bear in mind that members have limited ability to absorb this level of detail. Perhaps we might consider the value of conducting a general briefing session on the budgetary process for all Assembly Members. We cannot assume that people are totally familiar with it, so it would be in everyone’s interest. For now, we must deal with the expediency of the accelerated passage. Anyway, it is in your hands.

Mr O’Reilly: 
You make an important point, Mr Chairman. As these documents vividly illustrate, there is a great deal of technical detail, but if we had an opportunity to explain the underlying process to Assembly Members they would find it relatively straightforward.

The Chairperson:
It would help the Committee, and yourselves, if members could get a better grasp of the process. Some members may wish to get into the technical detail while others may just want to be confident that they understand, and can own, the democratic approval process.

Mr Pengelly:
Rather than going into detail today, I will go through the document quickly and highlight the purpose of each section, perhaps highlighting a couple of sections that members might like to read in order to gain an understanding of the process. We could supplement that at a later date.

The Chairperson:
The Committee might have some questions that will lead you into some of those matters. However, we will leave that to members’ discretion.

Mr Pengelly:
The pages of the document ‘Northern Ireland Estimates 2007-2008’are colour coded. Page 1, which has a blue edge, provides a high-level introduction and overview. Pages 2 and 3 contain a table, which may be of greater interest to members. It provides a summary of each Department’s key objectives — fundamentally, it is a high-level overview of what the Departments are seeking authority from the Assembly to spend money on.

On page 5 of the document, monetary figures are associated with each departmental objective. The terms used are “Resources” and “Cash”. The word “resources” is an accounting term for the full cost of a service that is being provided and the associated cash need. Some costs do not have a cash need. For example, if an asset is bought in year one, and lasts for ten years, then in each of the subsequent years there would be a depreciation charge but no cash outflow. Therefore, there would be a difference between resource need and cash need. Resource is the full cost of the public service being provided against each objective.

As Mr O’Reilly said, there was a Vote on Account in Westminster in March, which provided interim authority for spending in the current financial year. Table 1.3, which is on page 9, shows the Vote on Account provision, the additional amount being sought through the current process, and the total amount — it provides a bit more detail.

Section 2, which begins on page 10, provides an overview of the role of Estimates, and section 3 provides a high-level summary of public expenditure. These sections would be a good place to start in order to get an overview of the public expenditure framework and the role of Estimates within that framework.

In section 4, there is a statement about accountability and audit, which is followed by a glossary of terms. That ends the parts of the document devoted to introduction and overview.

Although the rest of the document looks intimidating, it contains basically the same information as in the introduction and overview, but set out in respect of each Department.

The pink-edged pages refer to the Main Estimate for each Department. The yellow-edged pages contain supporting notes and information about an Estimate but are not part of the Estimate.

For example, page 129 of the document provides an introduction, overview, and more detail on the roles, responsibilities and objectives of the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP). On page 130, part I provides a summary of the overall figures — the gross amount sought from the Assembly by way of authority for spend.

The key detail for each Department is contained in part II. For DFP, that can be found on page 131. The summary breaks down planned spending in a number of ways. Looking down the page, the “Departmental Expenditure in DEL” is highlighted in bold type. “Departmental expenditure limit (DEL) is a public expenditure classification; members will come across others such as “outside budget” and “annually managed expenditure (AME)”.

Part II shows the areas in which spending is proposed — for example, “Special EU Programmes”, “EU Community Initiatives” and the various directorates within DFP. Page 131 also shows the type of spend involved, such as “Administration” and “Grants”. Column 5, entitled “Accruing Resources” is a complex name for receipts, for example from third parties for fees and charges. Column 6 provides a net total.

Columns 7 and 8 show the planned capital spend. Columns 9 and 10 provide a comparison with previous years.

The detail of planned spend for each Department is found in part II of the sections on Main Estimates.

The table on page 133 outlines the resource-to-cash reconciliation for DFP. As I mentioned earlier, resources are represented to full cost, but some of those costs do not have an associated cash outflow. The table shows the reconciliation between the two. The two most significant items, capital charges and depreciation, appear in that table.

Part III of the section on DFP’s Main Estimates, which is found on page 134, details extra receipts payable to the Consolidated Fund. Those are normally referred to as CFERs —Consolidated Fund excess receipts. They are receipts in the same way in which accruing resources are receipts. The difference, however, is that accruing resources tend to be predictable and stable receipts. If a Department knows that it will have a certain value of receipts in a year it can seek the Assembly’s authority to retain those receipts and use them to finance spending. Consolidated Fund receipts are unpredictable. They cannot be forecast and, as they arrive, they are surrendered into the Consolidated Fund, to withdraw them from which Assembly authorisation is needed. The process depends on the volatility of the underlying receipt.

The yellow-edged pages contain supporting statements, tables and notes for each Department. The forecast operating-cost statement for DFP is on page 137. In the private sector, that would be termed the incoming expenditure account, or the profit-and-loss account, which summarises yearly expenditure.

The three boxes at the bottom of page 137 detail the three processes that we use: net operating cost; net resource out-turn; and resource budget out-turn. Those processes can create complexity. Net operating cost is really the cost that will appear in the departmental accounts, when those are produced. Net resource out-turn is the total provision sought in ‘Northern Ireland Main Estimates 2007-2008’. Resource budget out-turn is the amount that appears in ‘Priorities and Budget 2006-08’, which was published in December 2005.

The table on page 138 entitled “Reconciliation of resource expenditure between Estimates, Accounts and Budgets”, reconciles those three figures. For DFP, the figure shown for resource budget out-turn would have been approved in the normal Budget process in the Assembly. The table shows how the resource budget out-turn is reconciled with the Estimates, and provides a good illustration of the kind of adjustments that can occur.

Page 140 gives a fuller statement of the accounting officer’s departmental responsibilities. A table of accruing resources analysis is on page 141. It provides additional detail about the kind of receipts that the Department is generating, and shows from where they come. Page 142 contains more detail on CFERs, which are a different kind of receipt.

The financial detail for DFP is replicated for every other Department. The only deviation is that, for DFP, the Department of Education, and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, pension Estimates are included. Pension Estimates are unique to those three Departments.

That is a quick overview of what the Estimates document is about. I suspect that it may take Committee members a longer time to digest some of the detail. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
You may be correct to suspect that. In fact, the document may even cause a little bit of indigestion.

The meeting is now open to members’ questions. Do members have any particular questions on the brief so far?

Mr Storey:
Is there an accountancy course available for us to take? That would be very useful.

The Chairperson:
We must consider having a more in-depth induction process. No one can be expected to cope with such information overload at one meeting.

Mr O’Loan:
I thought that that was a very helpful introduction.

The Chairperson:
Do Members want to put any questions to Leo or Richard?

Dr Farry:
May I clarify the process from this point? The Budget Bill will be introduced in the Assembly in June under accelerated passage. We all appreciate that the legislation is essentially a handover document from direct rule and that we have little opportunity to influence it at this stage. However, Committee members have a formal consultative role to play before the Chairman signs the Bill off for accelerated passage. Will this meeting be our only opportunity to ask more detailed questions about the Bill, or will we have a second opportunity? To fulfil our consultative role today will prove impossible.

The Chairperson:
There has already been some consultation. Meanwhile, the Assembly has been restored, which is why accelerated passage is being discussed. What issues came up in the consultation? The Committee will have the opportunity to discuss the Bill and the proposals from June 12 onwards.

Mr O’Reilly:
Mr Pengelly will highlight some of the key points in the consultation process behind the proposals. We are in your hands as to what further engagement with us you will want after you have had a chance to absorb the details.

Mr Pengelly:
Before this meeting, copies were circulated of the draft ‘Priorities and Budget 2006-08’ document that was issued in 2005. There is some detail in that. The spending proposals that underpin ‘Priorities and Budget 2006-08’ were published in draft form in September 2005 and finalised in December 2005.

A great deal of detail on the consultation process is set out in chapter 6 of ‘Priorities and Budget 2006-08’. There were seven public consultation events and more than 900 written responses, which covered issues such as funding for health and education and priority funding packages. That is a great deal of detail.

In addition, the Secretary of State and Lord Rooker gave a presentation to MLAs, and there was a hearing at the Northern Ireland Grand Committee in Westminster. There was a long consultation, and chapter 6 sets out the details of the changes that were made as a consequence.

Dr Farry:
Will the Committee have an opportunity, beyond today, to discuss the ‘Priorities and Budget 2006-08’ document?

The Chairperson:
The proposals have already been partly implemented, as there was consultation before restoration. The Committee’s obligation now is to consider whether the consultation was adequate to allow us to support a proposal in the Assembly for accelerated passage. Members of the Committee must acknowledge that we have entered the process long after it started, and the opportunity to change it is limited. We should satisfy ourselves that there was consultation and, in the unusual circumstances surrounding recent political developments, that it is appropriate to move forward.

Dr Farry:
Having read the document and listened to the comments, I do not doubt that a full consultation was conducted, but I am reflecting our position and our responsibilities as incoming MLAs. You are saying that, if we satisfy ourselves that the consultation was thorough and proper, then, given the political circumstances and the timing of devolution, we must proceed with the proposals.

The Committee Clerk:
Successive Finance and Personnel Committees have raised that issue. There is a lack of clarity in the detail between the estimates, the budgets and the consultation. The Chairman is right that the consultation that we are signing off on happened before there was an Assembly.

In normal circumstances — and I am advised that this will happen as of this year — the consultation would involve departmental position reports, usually in March, when Committees are consulted on departmental plans and priorities and have the opportunity to go into them. An Executive position report in May will give the wider view. That is the consultation that members of the Committee would normally be asked to sign off when granting accelerated passage. The biggest difference is that accelerated passage is being requested for parliamentary scrutiny of the Bill, not of the Budget itself.

By agreeing that there has been appropriate consultation, the Committee will be providing for accelerated passage. That simply means that there will be no Committee Stage for the Bill, although there will still be a Second Stage in the plenary sitting, which is scheduled for 18 June. That will give all the Members of the Assembly the opportunity to debate the principles of the Bill, which will then follow its other Stages through the Assembly.

Mr Beggs:
My reading of the documentation is that the Assembly has until the end of July to make a determination, because there is funding in all the Departments until then. It is not necessary to rush a determination by the first week of June.

I acknowledge that there is not enough time or information for us to go into fine detail, but it would be overly hasty for us to wash our hands of the Budget Bill and walk away altogether.

The Committee was informed in earlier discussions that there could be problems, particularly with the capital budget. It might be worth waiting until we have the outcome of last year’s capital expenditure to see what money has not been allocated and satisfy ourselves that there is significant pressure on the Department to make sure that such failings do not happen again. That would be easy to determine. There may be flexibility to move some capital with that part of the budget if we are not happy with how it has been planned, but that may be our limit.

It might be wasteful to wait until the budgeting process in November/December before having significant input. This time next year we may be regretting not changing some of the capital budgets.

The Chairperson:
Usually the Committee would have significant opportunity to discuss that issue and the various options available to us. Regrettably, however, we are dealing with a legacy of direct rule. Perhaps Mr O’Reilly and Mr Pengelly might explain the fixed budget lines.

We do not want to get ahead of the Executive Committee, which is also getting its head around Budget issues, and it may identify some opportunities for reprioritisation. Powerful as we are, this Committee’s function is to examine the recommendations of the Executive Committee.

Perhaps the departmental officials could tell us the realpolitik of where we are with budgets that were fixed some time ago and which are now being rolled out.

Mr Pengelly:
Because of the vote on account, the Departments have sufficient legislative authority at the moment to spend up to mid- or late July. If there is no fresh legislative authority in place by then, public services will cease. If the legislation is not in place by the summer recess, the Assembly could not legislate until September. That would give public authorities significant difficulties in providing services.

Last week, the Executive endorsed the opening spending plans that were inherited from the direct-rule team as a way forward for 2007-08. There will be an opportunity to review those plans later in the year in the light of emerging flexibility and changing circumstances. Any changes to the plans will have to be reflected in further Budget legislation and a set of Estimates that will come back to the Committee in about February of 2008 to be tidied up and agreed. The Executive will focus on that in the coming months.

Mr O’Reilly:
Allocations have already been made to Departments, education and library boards, health trusts and individual schools, which are working to spend that money.

Capital is kept under review as part of in-year monitoring. We anticipate that it will be September before the Executive will be able to consider spending patterns during the year and whether adjustments need to be made to the budgetary allocations that were made to Departments last December.

Mr Beggs:
We have until the recess to approve legislation. I would like to reflect on last year’s performance of the capital budget before making a complete determination. I accept that without all the detail it would be imprudent to try to alter plans now because budgets have been handed down to agencies and even down to individual schools.

The Committee has the authority to scrutinise it, and that decision must be made.

The Chairperson:
The normal time involved in processing the Budget through the Assembly and getting its approval must be calculated into the timeline. Do you want to press this issue today or are you content that it be tabled for formal discussion by the Committee from 12 June, with a plenary sitting in the Assembly by 18 June? Does that provide enough time for reflection and to develop lines of inquiry?

Mr Beggs:
I see from the agenda that this item is not tabled for today’s business; therefore I do not wish to make a decision on it.

The Chairperson:
We must decide whether we will authorise a statement to the Assembly that we grant accelerated passage to the Budget.

Mr Beggs:
Where is that on the agenda? I wish to defer that decision, at least to another meeting, in order to seek clarification and to consult my colleagues. I am surprised to be faced with that decision at the Committee’s first briefing session.

The Chairperson:
It is item 5, point 15, tab 11 of your briefing pack; you can read it for yourself. It is under the general heading of “The Briefing on the Budget Bill”. I understand your difficulty if you were not aware that this issue was up for decision.

Mr Beggs:
I read the briefing pack before coming here, but the briefing paper did not say that it was up for decision; it mentioned only the process and the timing. Nothing made me aware that a decision had to be made today. I do not find it comfortable to agree it at this stage, and I prefer that it be deferred for at least one week. Does that cause problems?

The Chairperson:
How much flexibility do you require?

I understand that Mr O’Reilly and Mr Pengelly would like a decision as soon as possible. How much time do we have?

Mr O’Reilly:
It would be helpful if the Committee signalled its decision to the Speaker before the Bill were introduced; however, that is not scheduled until 12 June.

The Chairperson:
That answers Roy Beggs’s question, and it will give us time to reflect on the matter. It will be an agenda item for decision at our next meeting. Do other members wish to comment?

Dr Farry:
I am, generally, happy with that, if it makes the process more transparent. All of us are finding our feet in the Committee.

If we are to return to the issue next week, it would be useful for the Clerks to explain in a short note the terms under which the Committee grants accelerated passage. From earlier comments, it appears that Committee members must be satisfied that the public consultation has been effective, transparent and comprehensive. If that is the case, our function is simply to rubber-stamp the proposal. That role is distinct from whether the Committee has any input at this stage, but we will not have much opportunity to effect any changes.

It would be helpful if the terms on which the Committee takes a decision on accelerated passage could be briefly spelled out in a formal paper.

The Chairperson:
That can be delivered. Do members have any other questions?

Dr Farry:
May I ask two questions on content? The first concerns an issue that I have already raised with the permanent secretaries. In line with the shared future action plan, to what extent is the cost of division reflected in the decisions on resource allocation? Will that be known only after the forthcoming comprehensive spending review?

Mr Pengelly:
That issue will be developed further in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review and local priorities and Budget process.

Dr Farry:
Does that mean that although it was in the plan roughly this time last year, the Department has not addressed it yet?

Mr Pengelly:
It has not washed through the detailed spending plans.

The Chairperson:
If the Executive were to identify issues in the direct-rule programme that they wished to reprioritise, how would that affect the Budget and how would such changes be accommodated?

Mr Pengelly:
The Executive have endorsed the spending plans that they inherited for 2007-08. That is largely for pragmatic reasons because the year has started and, given time constraints, there is no real alternative. If, in the course of the year, any flexibility emerges it will go straight to the Executive to be reallocated in accordance with their emerging priorities.

The more substantive point is that throughout the rest of the summer, before a December conclusion to the Budget, the Executive will be considering priorities, associated spending allocations and performance targets for all public services. The key difference will come through the longer-term process in the years 2008-09 and beyond. If flexibility emerges this year, the Executive can stamp their mark on the Budget.

Mr O’Reilly:
I want to stress again that the Executive had to take this decision last week because they inherited spending plans from the direct-rule Administration, and they decided to proceed with them. If, later in the year, the Executive made adjustments, those would have to be reflected in the Spring Supplementary Estimates, whereby the adjustments to departmental budgets would have to be brought to the Assembly for approval.

The Chairperson:
Is it conceivable that new priorities will emerge during the Programme for Government discussions?

Mr O’Reilly:

Ms Purvis:
A note that I have suggests that the Bill also seeks authority for the issue of a cash sum from the Consolidated Fund for Northern Ireland, which is in addition to the cash sum already authorised in the vote on account. Is that normal procedure?

Mr Pengelly:
Absolutely. The cost of services and the associated cash needed to finance them are measured in accounting terms. Therefore both elements are part and parcel of the process.

Ms Purvis:
Thank you.

Mr Beggs:
An additional £100 million was granted to the Northern Ireland Executive. Has that been encompassed in the process?

Mr Pengelly:
Given the lead time for the development of the Main Estimates document, they always reflect the opening position. Any additional money from the Chancellor will be part of the in-year process and will be reflected in the Supplementary Estimates.

The Chairperson:
They might want to see the colour of his money first. I know that I would. [Laughter.]

Will there be an opportunity for this Committee and for other Statutory Committees to offer views on the Budget and how it can be developed, including arrangements for consultation with the Assembly and the public?

Mr O’Reilly:
The Committee has still to consider the question of consultation. The ‘Priorities and Budget 2006-08’ document contains a summary of the issues that were raised during consultation, including various concerns, and the Government’s response to them. We received more than 900 responses to the consultation, which should still be available on the dedicated website. If members wanted quick access to any of the concerns that were raised, we could liaise with your officials and provide them with more information.

The Chairperson:
That was a helpful discussion and signals the potential for a close working relationship.

Ms Purvis:
‘Priorities and Budget 2006–08’ is light on detail about input into the consultation, so I have some further questions on the consultation. On a practical note, half the pages are upside down, and there are no page numbers, so it is difficult to find the chapters.

The Chairperson:
Are you suggesting that that was done deliberately? [Laughter.]

Ms Purvis:
No, I am not.

The Chairperson:
Perhaps we could adjourn and invite Mr O’Reilly and Mr Pengelly back. Members could read the documents in detail and have more focused questions. Does that cover the member’s point?

Mr Beggs:
For the purposes of future Budget allocations it would be useful to examine closely the results of the consultation. We should avail ourselves of that information.

The Chairperson:
On behalf of the Committee, I thank Leo O’Reilly and Richard Pengelly for their patience, both for waiting their turn and for answering members’ questions.