New Secretary of State Karen Bradley has wrongly claimed that the £1 billion secured by the DUP could not be spent until ministers are in place in Belfast – but rapidly clarified her own remarks after the DUP said that she was incorrect.
Mrs Bradley made the initial comment at Stormont yesterday in response to a question from the News Letter during a brief group interview with several print journalists.
She spoke of how from her old role at the Department for Culture, Media and Spot she knew that the government “desperately want to roll out super fast broadband to Northern Ireland” but that “we cannot do that without an Executive to actually administer it because that’s the way that these things work”.
When asked by this newspaper whether ministers would be required to spend the £1 billion secured by the DUP, Mrs Bradley said: “Well, we need to do budgets, don’t we, and budgets require ministers to administer those budgets.
“It’s really clear to me – I’d a meeting with the Northern Ireland Civil Service first thing this morning ... they need ministerial direction in order to do that.”
When asked if she was saying that the £1 billion was not coming because there is no devolution, she said: “Well a budget that’s going to be administered needs ministers to administer it – it needs Stormont to do that.”
Those comments were reported by the Press Association. Twenty minutes later, the DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, tweeted: “Oh dear... some [of the money] already released. Rest on way. This is not correct”.
Twenty minutes after Mr Dodds’ comment, Mrs Bradley phoned the News Letter to clarify her comments, saying that although the government wanted to see the £1 billion spent by locally elected ministers, that was not a prerequisite to the money being released – a comment which was in line with what the Conservatives had said since the DUP deal.
She said that the first £50 million had been made available to Stormont departments but that only £20 million of that would be drawn down by the end of the financial year on March 31.
Speaking of that money, she said the government was “fully committed to making it available”. She later told PA that her initial comments were “possibly clumsy”.
DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the News Letter: “The money went through in the latest budget round – it was really only a first instalment and in the absence of an Executive there will have to be further appropriation bills for Northern Ireland to transfer not only next year’s budget from March 2018 but also the next phase of the additional monies that we’ve secured under the confidence and supply agreement.
“We are in detailed discussions with the Treasury about that and we expect that there will be more of the additional money transferred to Northern Ireland departments in the next financial year.”
Sir Jeffrey said that all of the money should be in Northern Ireland over the next two financial years, although some of it, such as mental health spending, will run over a longer five-year timeframe.
When former secretary of state James Brokenshire brought Stormont’s budget before Westminster for approval in November, he announced the £50m – but Parliament did not vote on it.
Referring to the Tory-DUP agreement, he told MPs that “separate from the [budget] bill” the government “will commit to making available the £50m for addressing immediate health and education pressures in the agreement in this financial year. Those sums are not contained within this bill, because they have not been voted on by Parliament.”