Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Devolved budgets are serious matters: This is about what Northern Ireland spends on healthcare and schools

Devolved budgets are serious matters: This is about what Northern Ireland's spend on healthcare and schools
Devolved budgets are serious matters: This is about what Northern Ireland's spend on healthcare and schools

"This budget comes with the proud stamp: Made in Northern Ireland ... Now it is for the Executive to set a course which will meet the needs of the people of Northern Ireland ... Our future success lies in our own hands and we must seize the opportunities that are before us."

Those heady words were spoken by the then Finance Minister Peter Robinson in October 2007, as he presented the budget to the newly-restored Northern Ireland Assembly. In that speech, Peter Robinson was right. This is what devolution is about - ensuring that key decisions for this region are taken in this region by those accountable to the people of this region.

That is precisely why how public money is spent - the budget - is a devolved responsibility. It recognises the fact that how public money is spent in, for example, Brighton or Manchester, responds to different needs and challenges than in Cardiff, Edinburgh or Belfast.

It's important we don't forget what it is we are talking about here. Devolved budgets are intensely serious matters. This is about what we spend on healthcare and schools - on how we care for the sick and provide educational opportunity for our children. It's about transport infrastructure - essential for keeping our economy moving.

It's about promoting the skills needed for the economy, supporting entrepreneurial businesses striving to succeed in a global market, protecting the natural environment on which tourism depends. It's about £10billion each year.

How we spend public money - the budget - is one half of economic policy. The other half is taxation - how we decide to raise the money needed for public services and investment.

This is the stuff of real political debate. How do we strike the balance between personal taxes and taxes on businesses? What about taxes on small businesses? What about taxes on the low paid? How do encourage innovation and growth while also funding public services?

Logically, if how we spend public money is best decided by the devolved Executive and Assembly, the same should surely apply to taxation. Our regional economy faces different needs and challenges from other parts of the UK. We need an approach to taxation which "comes with the proud stamp: Made in Northern Ireland".
 
And yet when NI21 put a motion before the Assembly last week urging support for the devolving of tax powers, the DUP, Alliance and UUP voted against it. I can, in a way, understand their fear. Devolving tax powers would mean that the debating society approach in the Assembly would have to go.

There would be no more blaming Westminster and the Treasury for hard decisions. The buck would stop at Stormont. For some, that clearly is an uncomfortable thought.
 
However uncomfortable it may make some in the political establishment, devolving power over taxes to Stormont is necessary not just to change politics here but also to change our economy. The deep challenges our regional economy faces need a made-in-Northern-Ireland solution. We need the hard decisions about taxes made here. We need to stop passing the buck to others with little or no knowledge of the Northern Ireland economy.
 
As someone once said, "Our future success lies in our own hands and we must seize the opportunities that are before us".

 

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