The senior civil servants who since March have been controlling Stormont’s £10 billion budget have said that they expect Westminster to step in and pass a budget by the autumn if there is no Executive.
Stormont’s Department of Finance (DoF) has also confirmed that the man in control of the budget in the absence of a finance minister has changed – something that was not announced until the News Letter asked about it.
David Sterling, who had been permanent secretary of the department, has been promoted to be interim head of the civil service.
Hugh Widdis, the departmental solicitor, has taken over as interim DoF permanent secretary and is now exercising powers under Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which allow officials to spend most – but not all – of last year’s budget.
Already, some of those who provide front line public services are being put on protective notice of redundancy due to the crisis.
Sure Start, which provides support to vulnerable families in south Belfast, placed 50 staff on notice that their jobs are under threat.
Earlier this week, the News Letter put seven questions to the DoF, among which was a question about whether public sector workers should be aware that they may have to make provision for losing their jobs.
Initially, civil servants at the department – where for three months they have been operating without democratic oversight – refused to answer the questions or even name who was administering the multi-billion pound budget.
However, after the News Letter asked for a second time the department issued a detailed statement.
It said that the department expected that “budget legislation will be passed either by the Assembly or by Westminster in the autumn, and before the point where departmental expenditure is approaching the 95% limit [which officials can spend].
“This will then authorise the full level of expenditure for the year. This was referred to in the secretary of state’s statement on July 3, when he said: ‘And, if no agreement is reached, legislation in Westminster may then be required to give authority for the expenditure of Northern Ireland departments through an Appropriation Bill.’
“Departments are currently operating on the indicative budget which reflects the indicative allocations set out by the secretary of state in a written statement to Parliament on April 24. This position was itself based on advice from the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service in conjunction with the NICS Board.”
If Westminster does act to pass Stormont’s budget, that moment will cause an ideological quandary for Sinn Fein. The party opposes any British role in Northern Ireland and is particularly averse to Westminster stepping in on a matter devolved to Stormont.
Yet, because Sinn Fein is refusing to enter the Executive until concessions by the DUP on the Irish language and Arlene Foster’s position, Mr Brokenshire’s intervention is the only legal mechanism whereby public sector workers can retain their jobs and public services continue.
The News Letter also asked the department whether civil servants can access borrowing under the Treasury’s RRI scheme – something which Stormont has used to supplement its budget almost every year to the tune of about £200 million.
The department said that “currently there are no plans to access the borrowing available within the RRI scheme for capital investment”, meaning less money for infrastructure investment – although if the money secured by the DUP in its deal with the Conservative Party can be accessed this year it will be considerably more than that sum.
The department also said that although the Northern Ireland Act only allows officials to spend 95% of last year’s budget in the current scenario, “the amounts authorised by a Budget Act are determined on a different basis than a department’s DEL budget ... therefore a 5% reduction in the amount approved under Sections 59 and 7 would not necessarily equate to a 5% reduction in departments’ budgets”.
And in a message which attempts to reassure those dependent on the budget for their jobs, the department added: “The approvals granted under Section 59 and 7 are an interim measure to allow services to be maintained until such times as a Budget Act is passed. Once a Budget Act is passed, this will supercede the approvals granted under Section 59/7 and will enable the full level of expenditure to be authorised.”