Belfast Telegraph

Assembly rapped for failing to find any savings despite deep cuts to budget

Simon Hamilton hits out as departments discover their fate

By Noel McAdam

The Assembly has been criticised for failing to produce proposals to save money - despite cuts being imposed across all other Government departments.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said he and other ministers had been "dismayed" that the Assembly came up with no suggestions for reducing its own annual budget.

He revealed the NI Audit Office, which investigates departmental spending, had also failed to provide any degree of savings for itself.

"I do not believe that these institutions are run so efficiently that they cannot play some part in keeping budgets to a minimal level," said Mr Hamilton.

He has now imposed a 5% spending cut on both the Assembly and Audit Office as well as the Assembly Ombudsman's Office, which had produced savings proposals.

"In times when the broad public sector was under such pressure, there would be a clear expectation from the Executive and the general public that these institutions would also provide some degree of savings," he said.

"Unfortunately, with the exception of the Ombudsman, who at least tried to identify some savings, that has not been the case, and I and Executive colleagues have been dismayed by the attitude taken by these bodies."

Mr Hamilton's admonishment of his MLA colleagues came as he revealed the departmental winners and losers from the budget settlement - and the outcome of the latest quarterly redistribution of unspent resources.

The Finance Minister said the Executive had "passed its first big test of this new era" - a reference to the pre-Christmas Stormont House Agreement which set achieving an agreed budget as the first hurdle of the new year.

Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance MLAs followed their respective ministers yesterday in opposing the share-out, which again saw the DUP-led Health Department and Sinn Fein-controlled Education out in front.

In turn, First Minister Peter Robinson accused smaller parties of an "a la carte" approach and said he hoped they had already not rejected the Stormont deal.

"The five party leaders went to the Secretary of State to show that we were prepared to take those hard decisions that were necessary to get our finances on a stable, sustainable and long-term basis," he said.

"It is sad to say that not all the parties that were on that delegation were able to give the degree of support that was necessary when the first issue came before them - namely, the passing of a Budget."

Mr Robinson also launched a blistering attack on the trade union campaign against massive public sector job cuts.

The DUP leader said it was a "downright lie" that public sector workers would be "sacked" and slammed public adverts as "outrageous".

The NI committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which is organising a public rally on March 13, warned "no one voted" for politicians to come up with a deal like the Stormont House Agreement. Mr Robinson told the Assembly he had been given a mandate to reform the public sector and rebalance the economy.

His no-holds-barred criticism came as it was confirmed the Executive can borrow up to £700m from the Treasury to finance the loss of up to 20,000 Civil Service and public sector jobs over the next three years.

Factfile

OFMDFM has been given £10m for its shared future programme 'Building a United Community' - and a further £1.5m for victims services. The Department of Regional Development gets among the least of the cash share-out with £5m for new bus services in towns and road repairs. Minister Danny Kennedy announced an immediate go-ahead for more street light repairs.

DEPARTMENT FOR EMPLOYMENT AND LEARNING

The higher and further education sector is around £33m better off compared to the draft budget, but will still need to reduce the number of student places. Ulster University is to borrow another £38m under the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative (RRI) for its Belfast campus development.

DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

Pressures facing classroom sizes and equipment should be alleviated with an extra £64.6m for education - the biggest single increase compared to the draft budget. But Education still faces a 1.6% cut in its overall budget. It, with Health, accounts for two-thirds of all expenditure.

DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

The protection of front line health services comes top of the Executive's priorities, with an additional £204m - an increase of 3.4%.

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

A further £20m has been allocated to deal with pressures facing the PSNI following cuts which have included the loss of more than 300 temporary agency posts at the end of last year and also to allow it to continue with recruitment plans in 2015/16.

DCAL

DCAL was allocated £2m for issues related to the development of NI Screen and the Cinemagic festival, as well as the Public Record Office, and £600,000 to help save the Ulster Orchestra and finance a number of sporting events.

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