No instruction given to start work on revenue-raising, says senior civil servant

Neil Gibson - Department of Finance. Photo: PANeil Gibson - Department of Finance. Photo: PA
Neil Gibson - Department of Finance. Photo: PA
The most senior civil servant in Stormont’s Department of Finance has told MLAs he has received no instructions from ministers to begin work to introduce revenue-raising measures in Northern Ireland.

During an appearance at the first sitting of the new Finance Committee, Neil Gibson faced questions about whether political parties in the region had committed to introducing measures to raise additioal revenue as part of negotiations ahead of the return of Stormont.

His appearance came the day after the publication of details of a £3.3 billion financial package drawn up by the Government to support the return of devolution in Northern Ireland.

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The Government has said the Executive should raise £113 million in additional funds over the next year and produce a plan to deliver sustainable finances as a condition for the Treasury writing off almost £600 million of Stormont debt.

But Stormont leaders have voiced concern about introducing new revenue-raising measures in the region. Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald has written to the Treasury setting out her concerns and asking for an urgent meeting.

Ms Archibald has said the Executive should be given “time and space” to develop and agree a sustainability plan.

Committee chair Matthew O’Toole asked Mr Gibson, the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance, if he was surprised by the contents of the letter from the Treasury on Tuesday.

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Mr Gibson said: “Not surprised at the content in its overall structure, much of that had been trailed in the engagement that occurred around December.

“As always, there’s a little bit you are still awaiting. We didn’t get it until yesterday.

“The minister has already written back quite swiftly on some of the areas that cause her greatest concern.

“As always in these sorts of things, there is always a little bit more in the detail when you see it.”

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Mr O’Toole asked if political parties had agreed to revenue-raising measures during negotiations with the Government in December, ahead of the restoration of the powersharing institutions.

Mr Gibson said: “In those conversations, revenue-raising was always mentioned as one aspect of the conversation, the reference to a sustainability plan was a big piece of that.

“The expectation there was that any conversation in relation to how Northern Ireland’s finances could be put on a sustainable footing would require consideration of all matters, of money coming in from whatever sources and decisions that were taken.

“It is only in the detail of the letter that that is spelt out as a revenue-raising component and then a separate mention to the sustainability plan.”

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Mr O’Toole asked if ministers had agreed that work should begin on revenue-raising ahead of Tuesday’s letter from the Treasury.

Mr Gibson said: “It would be for ministers to answer how they interpreted it, but certainly the language that is set out is in the context of a sustainability plan.

“The Executive makes revenue decisions every year, rates setting, whatever it may be.

“Any form of financial long-term look at Northern Ireland’s finances would have to consider all sources of revenue that come to that, be they locally generated, be that through the UK grant.”

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Mr O’Toole said: “To be clear, at any point have you or your officials been instructed by an Executive minister, either directly or indirectly, to begin work on revenue-raising so far.”

Mr Gibson replied: “No.”