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Unionists join with Alliance to reject plea from John O'Dowd to ring-fence budget on education

By Rebecca Black

Every political party bar Sinn Fein and the SDLP has refused to back a plea by Education Minister John O'Dowd to have his budget ring-fenced.

Mr O'Dowd last night expressed disappointment after representatives of the DUP, UUP and Alliance each rebuffed his request to protect his budget.

The parties said they would not stand by the minister because of the lack of detail they had been given about his financial plans.

The snub has no legislative teeth, but it is a blow for the minister seeking support from the committee.

Education Committee chair Mervyn Storey, speaking as a DUP member, said he would not authorise a "blank cheque". Mr Storey claimed Mr O'Dowd is the only minister who does not share his plans with the Finance Minister.

Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kinahan backed Mr Storey but warned that consensus must be built.

Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn also weighed in, saying the minister would not be getting support from his party, describing the education system as "a shambles with the honorary exception of teachers".

SDLP MLA Sean Rogers did not comment either way on the matter during the meeting.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Storey said the rancour towards the minister was due to the lack of information being shared about saving plans.

"As a result of the budget settlement in 2011 when the Assembly came back, each department was required to produce a savings delivery plan – there was 3% basically taken off everyone's budget," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"They had to then devise where they were going to make the savings and show that.

"The Department of Education has done that but they have never interacted with the Department of Finance.

"Every other department has done that apart from education."

Mr Storey said Simon Hamilton had written to the Education Minister expressing concern.

Last night Mr O'Dowd responded, voicing his disappointment at the statements from the members of the committee.

"The education budget continues to face very real challenges," he said.

"While prudent budget management has been demonstrated, the financial outlook for the sector is difficult. I am disappointed that some committee members have indicated that they will not support protection for the education budget."

Story so far

When the Assembly returned in 2011, all of the ministers were charged with making big budget cuts to their departments. Mr O'Dowd was told he must make savings in excess of £300m by 2015. However, the department received an additional £120m for schools in January 2012, and the amount of savings which Mr O'Dowd needed to make was reduced to £200m.

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