Warning NI ‘just drifting along’ as Brokenshire revises budgets

James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary, made the announcement in Parliament
James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary, made the announcement in Parliament

The UUP has warned Northern Ireland cannot continue “just drifting along” after the Westminster government rejigged the budgets for its departments in the absence of any devolved government.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire declared that virtually every department’s 2017/18 budget would increase slightly compared with the spending figures he set out in April.

Once redundancy payments under the current Voluntary Exit Scheme are stripped out of the calculations, the general budgets for all nine departments combined – used for day-to-day things like wages – have been expanded from £10.48bn to £10.58bn, with health and education both being among the beneficiaries within that overall rise.

None of this money has anything to do with the colossal extra funding package agreed between the DUP and Tories; Mr Brokenshire made clear that “a restored Executive will need to agree how it wishes to allocate these funds”.

UUP economy spokesman Steve Aiken MLA criticised this latest example of spending priorities for Northern Ireland being set by Westminster, not by local figures.

He said: “We simply cannot keep just drifting along.

“What sort of message does it send to those on hospital waiting lists or victims of historical institutional abuse that it could now be the tail-end of the year before there are ministers in place making strategic decisions?

“Devolved institutions, with local politicians making decisions on behalf of local people, is still the best option for Northern Ireland.”

The annual spending for each of Northern Ireland’s nine departments is usually agreed in an overall annual budget in around December or January, covering the financial year beginning in April.

However, three times per year – typically in June, October and January – the finance minister can alter his spending plans in a monitoring round.

In March, civil servants – not ministers – took charge of the running of departments because no government had been established.

With no budget drawn up and no government in place by April 24, Mr Brokenshire drafted his own “indicative budget” for how money should be spent over 2017/18.

However, this did not take account of more than £40m-worth of extra funding which was promised to Northern Ireland by Chancellor Philip Hammond in March. Nor did it take into account any underspend from the previous financial year.

The increased spending which was announced on Wednesday is largely a combination of these two things.

So whilst it is not really a true “monitoring round”, Wednesday’s announcement largely does the same thing, in that it updates the budgets for each department which were set on April 24.

According to the figures back in April, it looked like most departments’ 2017/18 general budgets were in for a cut when compared with 2016/17.

However, the rejigged figures show that most of them are now in for a rise.

The only department which will receive less money compared to the April spending plan will be the Department for Communities (see below).

Mr Brokenshire said: “What I am announcing to Parliament today is by no means a solution for the long-term...

“In the autumn, Northern Ireland must have a proper budget in place to put its finances on a secure footing.

“Although we are not at that critical point yet, this is approaching.”

He said that he will put forward a final, full-year budget himself if he must, but added that it is meant to be the job of devolved ministers to do it themselves.

“I want that power to be exercised by those who should be exercising it – the Northern Ireland parties, who have been elected by the people of Northern Ireland to provide devolved government here,” he said.

Departments’ general spending budgets (known as ‘resource departmental expenditure limits’), minus redundancy payments, are set out below.

However whilst many departments are seeing the funding they get increased slightly, the Civil Service’s own figures state that inflation is currently running at 1.63% – meaning that unless departments are getting an increase in funding of at least this amount, it still adds up to a cut in their real-terms spending power.

Departments’ general spending budgets for 2017/18 compared to 2016/17, as announced on April 24:

• Agriculture/Environment: –3.2%

• Communities: +10.3%

• Economy: –1%

• Education: –0.9%

• Finance: +1.9%

• Health: +3.4%

• Infrastructure: –1.3%

• Justice: –1.1%

• Executive Office: –0.4%

Departments’ general spending budgets for 2017/18 compared to 2016/17, as adjusted on Wednesday:

• Agriculture & Environment: –1.1%

• Communities: +8.9%

• Economy: –0.9%

• Education: +0.7%

• Finance: +1.9%

• Health: +4.6%

• Infrastructure: +0.1%

• Justice: –0.6%

• Executive Office: +9.8%