Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

'Common sense' needed to sort public finances

The Northern Ireland Executive has been urged to restore "common sense" to the public finances, regardless of the political consequences.

In a hard hitting speech to over 400 representatives from the business community last night, president of the NI Chamber of Commerce Bro McFerran said the number of Executive departments claiming influence over economic regeneration was hindering the creation of an effective economic strategy.

Addressing an audience including First Minister Peter Robinson and Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey, Mr McFerran questioned several Executive decisions including free prescriptions and free public travel for those who could already afford them; delaying water charges; the slow turnaround of infrastructure projects; money spent translating documents into the Irish language and Ulster-Scots; and the lack of progress with the Reform of Public Administration.

"Business knows that when times are hard, that is the time to review costs, to invest and to prepare for recovery. We need to translate the mantra of business to the practice of politics," he said.

"Three decades of continued public expenditure growth, two decades of solid economic growth and a rapid expansion of the public sector have combined to create a layer of public sector fat that is approaching obesity.

"We need to challenge everything and challenge commercially. If we can do more with less, we should do it," added Mr McFerran.

The chamber president also said that while Scotland's devolved government had formed a successful coalition, concerns over the Executive's stability is still impacting business confidence and investment.

Mr McFerran suggested trimming Government departments to five or six, and expressed support for Professor Richard Barnett's Review of Economic Policy, which called for a single Department for the Economy incorporating the existing functions of DETI and DEL.

"This new Department should have an overarching control of the economic impact of all the other departments," he added.

"In that way, the Executive would be demonstrating that the economy was truly centre stage in the Programme for Government. This is not always apparent."

However, he said the Barnett recommendation to eliminate support for business expansion would be a "disastrous mistake" that could cost jobs and drive both indigenous and inwards investors elsewhere.

"We have to recognise that new FDI projects, especially those offering the potential of hundreds of new jobs, are now harder to secure because of the increase in global competition and increasing protectionism in the US administration," he said.

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