Mystery of Stormont's missing millions of pounds
Stormont finance chiefs have rejected shock claims that cash-strapped ministers have handed back almost half a billion pounds to the Treasury.
With government spending cuts already biting deep, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said official figures revealed an overall £466m over the last four years had been left unspent.
He said his party had obtained data showing departments, including Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's office, failed to spend between £90m and £150m each year since 2011 - providing "further proof" that the DUP and Sinn Fein are "unfit to govern".
But Finance Minister Arlene Foster's department last night said that the UUP chief had misunderstood how government accounting works.
The DUP minister's officials insisted: "The fact is that in the last four years no funding that could have been used to fund public services was lost to the Executive."
The UUP's figures show that in 2011/12, around £153.6m was handed back to London, followed by a further £129.5m in 2012/13.
In 2013/14, the handback amounted to £91m and in the most recent year, 2014/15, it went up again slightly to £92.6m - a staggering overall total of £466.7m - just over £30m shy of half a billion pounds.
The answers were given in Parliamentary answers to Mr Nesbitt's predecessor as UUP leader, Lord Reg Empey, who was told that far more of the 'underspends' happen within the day-to-day budgets rather than for capital projects.
Mr Nesbitt said: "Officials can spin at the behest of their ministers to try to gloss over it, but the figures are the figures. This is further proof that Sinn Fein and the DUP cannot govern.
"Martin McGuinness is howling at the moon over a £38m in a year cut which represents approximately a 0.34% cut to our budget, but ignoring the wasted half billion pounds that falls to him, as one of two first ministers, to account for.
"They cannot even spend money that was allocated to the Social Investment Fund, with £79m still resting in OFMDFM's joint account at the end of March 2015 and less than a quarter of the money that should have been spent on accessible childcare has hit the ground to enable people back into work.
"They cannot decide on Corporation Tax, they can't decide on the future of the Maze site, they can't decide on the new Police Training College, they can't decide on the Stormont House Agreement. They can't make decisions on anything. They're not fit to govern."
Mr Nesbitt waved the papers showing the figures on the BBC's The View programme last Thursday, while Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey dismissed it as a "stunt".
He said: "Mike Nesbitt needs to make it clear whether or not he is prepared to stand up for local people and for our public services in the face of Tory threats to impose further savage cuts.
"So far he has singularly failed to challenge his former colleagues in the British Tory party on their savage cuts to the block grant and their attack on the welfare state.
"Mr Nesbitt is clearly being disingenuous, playing fast and loose with figures while his party remains part of the Executive's collective decision-making process."
And a statement from the Department of Finance insisted: "Mr Nesbitt suggested that the Executive had wasted over half a billion pounds when the fact is that in the last four years, no funding that could have been used to fund public services was lost to the Executive.
"Unfortunately, Mr Nesbitt has taken what appear to be Provisional Outturn figures at face value and it's important to clarify that any underspend in each of the last four financial years is comprised of three distinct elements.
"Firstly, underspend within the Department of Justice was subject to End Year Flexibility arrangements which allowed full carry forward of unspent funding.
"Secondly, general underspend, which was again carried forward to the next financial year under the Budget Exchange scheme for the devolved administrations.
"Thirdly, underspend within the ring-fenced non-cash budget which could not be used for any other purpose."