Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Stormont downsizing row: Level of savings from reduction in departments queried

Official forecasts that reducing the number of Government departments in Northern Ireland would save tens of millions of pounds are being called into question.

The challenge comes from the committee drawing up plans to cut the present total of 12 departments and prune the current level of 108 MLAs.

The Assembly and Executive review committee is writing to the First and Deputy First Minister to ask for an explanation of the figures.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson told the Assembly three years ago this month that “reducing the number of departments from 11 to six would save tens of millions of pounds per annum on an ongoing basis”.

His estimate was based on the number of functions that are replicated across the departments such as corporate, personnel and finance services.

But Raymond McCaffrey of the Assembly's Research and Information Service (RaISE) told the committee: “It is unclear to us how that estimate was made and I suppose we would conclude that it’s probably useful to ask for further information on how it was arrived at.”

Mr McCaffrey also said any attempt to provide costings “is going to be very difficult unless you have a specific proposal of how a post-reorganisation landscape is going to look”.

“Without that, it could be something of a guessing game,” he added.

The committee chair, Stephen Moutray of the DUP, proposed the committee should write to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness “requesting information on any work that has either been undertaken to date or planned to estimate the initial costs, anticipated savings and effect on employment that would result from a restructuring”.

The committee has asked for a response following the week-long Halloween recess. Mr Wilson’s department said it did not anticipate contributing to the answers being sought from OFMDFM.

A statement replying to a number of questions put by the Belfast Telegraph said: “The Finance Minister in 2009 suggested that a reduction in the number of departments from 11 to six would save tens of millions of pounds on an ongoing basis.

“There is currently no agreed model in terms of restructuring the NICS departments to base an updated estimate of savings on.

“The estimated savings were based on a generic reduction in the number of departments from 11 to six. It was not based on a specific proposal.”

Story so far

The number of Government departments went from six to 11 following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which included the separate Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). And it became 12 when policing and courts powers were devolved. A multi-party committee has been working on how the number can be reduced.

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