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Ministers back one-year budget based on nine new government departments

Published 17/12/2015

Finance minister Arlene Foster said the budget had been set under
Finance minister Arlene Foster said the budget had been set under "very challenging circumstances"

Health, policing and schools have been protected under the new budget agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive.

Ministers backed the one-year spending plan during a meeting at Stormont Castle on Thursday.

It is based on the nine new government departments due to take effect from next May.

Finance minister Arlene Foster said: "The one-year budget will give new departments and new ministers a stable, balanced platform to determine priorities and funding allocations post the May election for a multi-year budget from 2017/18 to 2019/20."

An extra £133 million has been allocated to help alleviate pressures in the Department of Health.

A further £40 million has been set aside for schools, with the Department of Justice set to receive an extra £15 million.

Mrs Foster said the budget, a commitment in last month's Fresh Start Agreement, had been set under "very challenging circumstances".

In a written statement to the Assembly, she said: "Logistically this has been an extremely challenging budget both in terms of constrained timescale and as a result of the late date for the Chancellor's spending review announcement and the fact that it had been produced on the basis of the new nine department structures that will be in place following the elections in May."

There is also funding for major capital projects such as the A5 western transport corridor, the development of Belfast's rapid transit network, the mother and children's hospital in the city and new regional stadia.

The green light has also been given for the go-ahead of the much delayed emergency service training college at Desertcreat in Co Tyrone.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said on Twitter: "Our Executive Budget for 2016/17 agreed today includes funding for major infrastructural road projects A6 and A5. Great news for Derry and N/W (north west)."

Among the main losers will be the new Department of Agriculture and Environment which is facing a cash reduction of 5.7%.

Smaller bodies such as the Public Prosecution Service, the Food Standards Agency and the Executive Office are also facing cuts.

Of the £60 million that had been allocated to mitigate tax credit cuts, half will now go to the protected departments, with the other £30 million to be held by the Executive until the welfare reform mitigation review has been completed by Professor Eileen Evason.

Almost £50 million has been allocated to a voluntary exit scheme for teachers.

The budget will be brought to the Assembly for debate in January.

Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce president, Stephen McCully said some spending allocations should be revised.

He said: " We have spent a number of months emphasising the importance of investment in skills and our message has not been heard.

"NI Chamber urges the Northern Ireland Executive to begin 2016 by reconsidering the draft budget allocations for the Department of the Economy and in particular the allocations to higher and further education and skills development initiatives which lead to the development of a higher value economy; support export development and reduce youth unemployment."

Meanwhile, small businesses have welcomed another freeze in the regional rate.

Northern Ireland Independent Retail and Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts said: "It is welcome that the Executive has agreed a balanced budget which is rightly focusing on investment in key economic areas such as skills and infrastructure.

"Minister Foster has made the right call in again freezing the regional rate, given the cost of business pressures many of our members are under."

Health minister Simon Hamilton said the increased funding could help tackle immediate challenges such as lengthy waiting lists but cautioned there were still tough times ahead.

He said: "We all appreciate the pressures that health is under and tough choices and difficult decisions will remain but this is a good deal for health in exceptionally challenging budgetary times."

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