Sammy Wilson accuses Sinn Fein of blocking cash transparency

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Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has accused Sinn Fein of blocking measures to improve transparency on public expenditure during heated exchanges at the Assembly.

The senior DUP figure claimed education minister John O’Dowd was giving more information to the Treasury in London than Stormont MLAs.

He also alleged Mr O’Dowd had failed to adequately progress a review of how students are encouraged to stay in education and said a broader rethink of whether public financial processes can be made clearer had been awaiting Executive clearance for several months.

DUP leader Peter Robinson has launched a series of broadsides recently against his republican partners in government, claiming fear of the SDLP had paralysed decision-making in the Executive.

Mr Wilson told the Assembly: “I do think that when people want transparency, we are prepared to give them transparency. If there is a road block to it, it is my duty as a minister to say where this roadblock lies. It does not lie with my department.”

He said he was frustrated more progress had not been made, but denied he had any problem personally with any minister.

Mr Wilson added: “The difficulty has been with the education minister who, ironically, will give that information to the Treasury in London before he will give it to this Assembly.”

He said: “I am concerned that because of the inability, and this is due mainly to Sinn Fein, to get this (financial processes review) through the Executive we still do not have the transparency which the Assembly would have wished.”

He said the wider public had experienced difficulties in understanding the financial consequences of public expenditure decisions taken by the Executive and his review of financial processes was designed to address this.

Separately, he said pressure on the budget of £3.5 million was created by the failure to progress the review of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which is considering whether payments to encourage students in their late teens to stay on in education are working, and to fund salary pressures for the assembly ombudsman, the comptroller and auditor general, lands tribunal and judicial salaries.

Mr Wilson said he was particularly disappointed that the EMA review, launched for public consultation in July, had not made more headway.

“The education minister has not progressed this despite the fact it was something which was endorsed with the executive,” he said.

The Department for Finance and Personnel has highlighted the amount of money being returned unspent to the central department by departments. The judicial review to the A5 road upgrade from Aughnacloy in Co Tyrone to Londonderry is leaving around £10 million a month unspent.

Smaller capital projects like schools maintenance are helping to use the money but if more is not reallocated it could in theory be returned to London at the end of this financial year. Mr Wilson is in negotiations with the Treasury for flexibility on that rule to allow some money to be rolled over to the next year.

Mr Wilson announced the outcome of the October Monitoring Round, where his department checks on departments’ progress in spending their budget and reallocates money which is not being used. He also gave the results of the Executive’s realignment of its budget for the next two financial years.

The Executive allocated £66 million, nearly £24 million towards an initiative investing money to save in the long term and £171 million for budget realignment over the next two years. The Executive also set aside £80 million for its jobs and economy initiative, announced last week.

The social housing development programme relinquished £8 million but £8 million was reallocated for co-ownership housing for the rest of this financial year.

There was a total of £24 million handed back for reallocation from projected running costs and £13 million for capital expenses.

The health department was allocated £4 million to deal with pseudomonas infections which killed infants in Belfast and Derry.

An extra £90 million was earmarked for the Education Department in 2013-14 and 2014-15; £5 million a year was set aside to cover the cost of scrapping air passenger duty on direct long haul flights.

Londonderry’s year as City of Culture 2013 will cost the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure an extra £6.1 million next year and that money was allocated by the DFP today.

An extra £28 million will be used for welfare reform affecting rates. Around £35 million was set aside for tackling youth unemployment.