Just three MLAs vote against Stormont’s ‘fantasy budget’

Arlene Foster warned the Assembly that the budget situation 'will become untenable' without welfare reform
Arlene Foster warned the Assembly that the budget situation 'will become untenable' without welfare reform

The Assembly has overwhelmingly expressed support for Finance Minister Arlene Foster’s so-called ‘fantasy budget’ which pretends that welfare reform is still happening, even though Sinn Fein has blocked the changes.

MLAs continued a debate on the Budget (No 2) Bill, which they had started on Monday but which had been postponed due to the length of the debate.

The UUP and SDLP abstained in a vote on the budget where just three MLAs voted against the unfunded spending document – TUV leader Jim Allister, Green Party leader Steven Agnew and independent John McCallister.

The votes of the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party carried the second stage and, under accelerated passage, consideration stage was immediately approved.

The budget will return to the Assembly for its further consideration stage on Monday and then on Tuesday is almost certain to be voted through its final Assembly stage.

However, the funding problems which will result from an unfunded budget are already materialising, as some departments attempt to slash their spending because they know that there is insufficient money to get them through the year.

Mrs Foster warned MLAs: “Make no mistake: if we do not implement welfare reform, our budget situation will become untenable.”

She added: “The First Minister has always made it clear that this party will not implement a budget that has £600 million of cuts in public services. Therefore, if welfare reform does not happen, there is no budget. If there is no welfare reform, there is no Stormont House Agreement, no Assembly and no Executive. It is very clear. We will not have to go through a budgetary process.”

Ukip’s David McNarry told MLAs: “The simple fact is that there is not enough money to spend. People are being told – not asked – to forfeit what little we have because Martin McGuinness pushed too far with a promise and is not big enough to admit that it was impossible to deliver.”

NI21’s Basil McCrea said: “I heard calls from all sides and from every person standing up as chair of their committee or with some special interest saying, ‘We need more money for this’ or ‘We need more money for that’ ... without welfare reform, we have no money.”

And Mr McCallister took nationalist MLAs to task for demanding greater public spending – but refusing to support an increase in taxation to pay for it. He said: “There is no comprehension from the SDLP or Sinn Féin about how you would have a mature debate [on raising revenue].

“Even when Mr Wells was Health Minister and talked about some modest charge of or options for prescriptions, everybody ran for the hills. There was no effort to engage in a debate on how you would move an issue like that forward.”

He added: “I cannot go and tell my constituents who are on the average industrial wage of £19,000 or £20,000 why we should pay their neighbour who is on benefits over £30,000. I cannot go and try to justify that to my constituent.

“In the welfare debate, we had talk of something like 6,500 families who were getting an average of £30,700. That is the equivalent of a £40,000 a year salary. You cannot justify that when some of the poorest people in society are people who are now actually in work.”

But Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy said that the onus was on the Government to raise revenue by getting more tax out of “large corporations and wealthy individuals”.