You can read her full speech below
I want to take this opportunity to thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, Members and all colleagues for the warm welcome that I have been given by the Assembly. I also wish the Minister well in his new role. I would like to put on record that it is an honour and privilege to be appointed to represent the people of Strangford. I am immensely proud of the constituency that I have lived in all my life. Strangford is simply the most beautiful, warm and generous constituency, and I will use the privilege that, as this is my maiden speech, no one in the House can contradict me on that one.
I am committed to ensuring that only the best services are provided for my constituents. Therefore, it is appropriate that I give my maiden speech in the debate on the Budget (No. 2) Bill, which, after all, will determine the resources that will be spent on providing services to all our constituents in this financial year.
I am very aware that I am following in the footsteps of my predecessor, Kieran McCarthy, who represented the Strangford constituency with exceptional ability and tenacity. Kieran was an outstanding Member of the Assembly, and I am sure that the House joins me in wishing him and his wife, Kathleen, a long and happy retirement. There are many happy miles of motoring left for Kieran to enjoy in his beloved Morris Minor and hours of playing with his growing number of grandchildren.
Kieran voted against the 2016-17 Budget when it was debated in the Assembly back in January because it missed an opportunity to take strategic decisions to look ahead to help resolve issues with the health service, education reform and the cost of a divided society. Today, I challenge the Finance Minister, as I do not believe that the Executive have got the balance right. He outlined his opposition to austerity, yet the Budget does not invest enough in front-line services that will help those who are impacted on by cuts.
Today, we have been presented with a Budget Bill that is letting down the community and voluntary sector. Today, two and half months into the financial year, there are community and voluntary sector organisations that have still not been told what financial support they will be working with in this financial year. That is an unacceptable norm. It is becoming an annual ritual for Departments to leave those organisations in limbo, with staff on notice of redundancy and without the ability to plan for sustainable services. There is no reason why Departments have to wait for this legislation before letting organisations know what financial support they will be getting, because the Assembly passed a Vote on Account in February that gave Departments the resources that they needed to make those commitments by the start of the financial year. I ask the Minister how he expects the Budget to deliver for our community when we are already letting down the very partners that we need to deliver services on the ground. Minister, I ask you to confirm whether you think that that makes good business sense or whether you agree with me that it is wholly unacceptable.
Today, we are presented with a Budget Bill that keeps spending a disproportionate amount of money on high-profile flagship projects such as the A5 and A6 roads, the Belfast rapid transit scheme, the Belfast transport hub, Desertcreat training college, the women and children’s hospital at the Royal, and regional and subregional sports stadia.
It is not that those things are not needed.
My concern is that we cannot afford all those things at the same time while basic needs are not being met. Why is it acceptable to have an almost £1 billion backlog of roads maintenance? Should we not be dealing with the miles of potholes and crumbling rural roads rather than investing all the capital money in a handful of shiny new projects just because they give Ministers photo opportunities?
I have to ask this Finance Minister what has changed. When Simon Hamilton was Finance Minister, he stated on several occasions that we could not afford to build the A5 and the A6 simultaneously, yet, here we are, both the A5 and the A6 are in the capital budget, at a time when expenditure on roads maintenance is at an all-time low. Even with the surprise announcement of an additional £5·3 million for roads maintenance and flood protection today, the expenditure on roads maintenance, coastal defences and flood protection is way below where it needs to be. When I was growing up, I was taught to look after what you have first. Therefore, if your roof was leaking, you replaced the broken slates. You did not spend all your money on a new conservatory. Our deteriorating roads and crumbling sea defences are the equivalents of a leaking roof. The small amounts of money that you have allocated today will not fix the problem.
The Budget does little to take forward the opportunity to remove silo-working. It does not force Departments to work together enough to improve the lives and well-being of the most vulnerable in our society. For example, in the Bill, Departments continue to cut investment for support for learning disability and autism services. I do not see any commitment in it to the £2 million that was promised by the previous Health Minister to help reduce waiting lists for autism diagnoses. Will the Minister confirm whether the £2 million for autism is in the Budget or in the additional money that was announced in the June monitoring round? In the past weeks, parents have contacted me to complain that waiting times are increasing and not decreasing.
At the same time, the Education Authority is moving to cut preschool nursery support for children with special needs. Multiple studies and reports confirm that early intervention makes a substantial and lifelong difference to children with learning disabilities. Diagnosis delays and the removal of early years support will only create higher costs for Health and Education in the long run. The lack of appropriate Budget planning means early years support is not being given the money that it needs to help children. Without that support, vulnerable children with learning disabilities are being left behind, not receiving the same level of investment as other children. Is this how we should be balancing our finances: by taking from the most vulnerable or by funding services dependent on the crumbs from the table given out during monitoring rounds?
My challenge to the Finance Minister and to the Executive is to treat the community and voluntary sector like a partner and to ensure that all letters of offer are supplied before the end of this month for this financial year, and that all future grants are confirmed before the start of each financial year; to review our commitment to major capital projects; to fix what we have first before embarking on long-term, high-cost photo-opportunity projects; and to invest in the most vulnerable in society. Cutting early years support may save one Department a few pounds now but in the long run will cost all Departments so much more and have a lifelong detrimental effect on people with learning disabilities.
I have listened over the past few weeks to various Ministers berate Members sitting in Opposition for not presenting solutions. This Budget does little to create solutions for the most vulnerable and isolated in our society. Alliance proffered solutions to Sinn Féin and the DUP through our five priorities. However, those parties chose to maintain division for their own purposes. If the Executive want to make a difference, it should work harder to end the amount of money being wasted on division. Let us see real change through investment in building an integrated society, in jobs and skills and the economy, and to end all forms of paramilitarism.
This Budget actually places further pressures on our community by investing in headlines instead of front-line services.