Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Simon Hamilton: From shoe shop worker to minister with £10billion to spend... meet the baby-faced new boy joining the Executive

Budgetary chief sets out his stall

Simon Hamilton
Simon Hamilton

It is a very fast rise – from councillor to minister in eight years.

New DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton (36) was a party Press officer and also formerly worked in a shoe shop.

But now the fresh-faced newcomer controls the purse-strings at Stormont after replacing Sammy Wilson, the man in charge of spending Northern Ireland's £10.5bn block grant from London.

Immediately grasping the issues facing him, Northern Ireland's newest minister said it was "ludicrous" that the province has 12 Government departments – but said reducing them will not save huge sums of public money.

In his first newspaper interview as minister, he signalled he will not introduce water charges, despite the incentive of boosting Executive coffers.

He said: "They have been ruled out for the entire budgetary period and I think rightly so. We'd do a lot if we had another £250m, but that money doesn't come from the sky; it has to come from somewhere and it would be coming from people's pockets," he said.

"The effect then, potentially, would be diminishing spend elsewhere in the economy. If someone is paying a separate water bill on top of what they are paying in the regional rate they are not spending it in local shops and so on. So it is six of one and half-a-dozen of other.

"There would be protections built into the charges for the most vulnerable, so those who would be paying would be those in the middle who are already feeling the squeeze, and they are going to feel really, really pressurised.

"We have a budget to agree for 2015/16 and a bigger one beyond that.

"The principle (must be) is that we maintain the lowest household taxes in the UK. That is a hard-earned reputation that my predecessors have won."

Elected to Ards council in 2005 and Stormont in 2007, Mr Hamilton said the job of the first Assembly was to ensure a second term, but the task now is "delivery" and he sees his department as "the engine room of the Executive".

He said: "Even if it is not glamorous, or gets the day-to-day headlines, I think this is the best job in Government in Northern Ireland."

Reaffirming party policy to shrink Stormont, he said: "In a place with a population of 1.8m it is ludicrous to have 12 Government departments, Scotland with 5m has just six, including the Office of First Minister.

"My job isn't necessarily to drive that but it is to point out that it is an area where reform is required.

"I think there's huge merit in having smaller Government, (but) this idea that reducing the number of departments from 12 to eight, or lower, will save huge sums is not the case. You will save money because there is duplication and so on but the real benefit is not just smaller, but smarter Government."

He intends to cut further into excessive sickness and absence levels within the Civil Service.

"This continues to be a worrying situation. There have been improvements but it still remains too high," he said

Mr Hamilton also admitted he was "greatly concerned" over Treasury warnings it could take up to £5m a month out of the block grant if the Assembly does not meet the deadline in agreeing welfare reform legislation – a key issue for the autumn term.

But overall he is upbeat and praised the legacy left by Mr Wilson. "All of the predictions of doom and gloom and public spending Armageddon have proven not quite so, although times have been tough," he said.

He added that the Executive was making "good progress" in a number of areas, including NHS changes, Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland's reforms of the Housing Executive, the restructuring of education and the local government shake-up, with 26 councils being merged into 11.

"The new normal is less public spending but no lessening of the expectations the general public have of their services. That is incredibly difficult," he said.

Of his own success, he quipped: "(It's taken) eight years to become an overnight success."

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