Mr Speaker, my party and I are acutely aware of the urgent need for this Assembly and its Executive to respond to the Comprehensive Spending Review presented to Parliament last week. The question that I am receiving from members of the public with regard to this announcement is loud and clear:
“will this Assembly and in particular its Executive respond to this economic challenge with collective responsibility or will its political parties electioneer.”
Mr Speaker, I must admit that the wording of the original motion put to this house today and the actions and comments of some of the members of this house in the last week would suggest the public is right to be concerned that it might be the later.
For Sinn Fein to suggest to this house that the responsibility of dealing with this challenge lies with the Finance Minister alone is at best misleading. And to posture as the party against cuts is untenable given the budgetary reductions made by Sinn Fein Ministers to Sustainable Transport and Community Relations in our schools.
I recognise that it is important that elected representatives in Northern Ireland continue to fight our corner and raise our concerns directly with the UK Government over the pace and depth of cuts.
I am concerned; however, that rather than working with Executive colleagues to produce a draft budget by the end of the year, some members have sought to indulge political agenda.
The Finance Minister will not be able to tackle this problem alone and we must work together to produce our own budget in order to give this region the best chance of economic recovery and ongoing political stability that we can.
Mr Speaker, my party shares many of the concerns of other members of this house for the budgetary reductions announced by the UK Government.
Indeed my party colleague, Naomi Long, who takes her seat on the opposition benches of Parliament, was the first Northern Ireland MP to question the Chancellor of Exchequer about the need for special measures in this region in order to stabilise our economy and stimulate private sector growth.
Nevertheless, it is also for the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to make decisions on this matter. Like it or not political posturing has wasted money and opportunities to improve the efficiency of public services in this region; to allow this to continue would fail the public who expect this Assembly to make decisions that will improve our society by delivering improved opportunity for education, jobs, health and support for the most vulnerable within our society.
We believe that there are ways to create a more sustainable and competitive Northern Ireland.
The Executive has to make efficiency savings and improve productivity throughout the public sector. Through effective planning, cutting spending does not necessarily have to mean cutting services. We must ensure that every penny of tax-payers money secures value.
The Alliance Party would prioritise actions that will find savings through building a shared future. In the context of real financial pressure, the luxury of wasting money on maintaining a divided society cannot be tolerated. While it will take time to find and realise these savings, it is critical that we make a start now. Alliance estimates that addressing the costs of division can lead to savings of around £1bn every year. Specifically there are considerable financial and societal benefits to be achieved through the sharing of education.
Alliance has long championed reform of the political institutions. Rationalisation of government departments would result in more joined up government and financial savings of £10 to £20m per year. We also support a reduction in the number of MLAs.
Alliance is also prepared to accept that some additional revenue-raising in Northern Ireland may be required. No government would seek to address our local challenge through savings alone. Not addressing difficult issues such as socially just water charges and making collective decisions on the sale of assets, regional rates and congestion charging would mean even steeper cuts in vital public services which will hurt the most vulnerable.
With the larger than expected reduction in capital funding the Executive must consider reallocating money from revenue funding to strategically important capital projects that will support our construction industry and create the infrastructure for growth.
Tough decisions will be also be required on reducing future expenditure on salaries and safeguarding jobs. If a decision is taken to reduce public sector pay, protecting the low paid should be paramount.
Other measures that can be considered by the Executive to stabilise the economy and support private sector growth include:
· an increased emphasis on developing cross-border co-operation on shared services;
· a focus on early intervention and preventive measures; and
· Support for the Green Economy
These are all decisions that need to be made collectively by the Executive and we call on the Executive to send out a message today that it is ready to work collectively to deliver decisive action. All families in Northern Ireland have been, and will continue to be, affected by the recession. It is vital that the Executive provides leadership and makes the decisions to ensure that scarce public finances are not squandered, that first class modern pubic services are delivered, jobs safeguarded and created, the most vulnerable protected and that a strong and competitive Northern Ireland economy is developed to support the delivery of a shared and better future for all in this region.