Belfast Telegraph

New deadline for devolution could bring budget crisis, says UUP leader

By Noel McAdam

The latest deadline for a deal to restore devolution will leave only weeks before swingeing spending cuts hit government departments, it has been confirmed.

Politicians will be facing the threat of an inevitable 5% reduction to budgets, which is likely to lead to cuts in services and significant job losses.

Legislation introduced in Parliament yesterday designed to maintain the finances of our 11 councils pinpoints the latest cut-off point of June 29.

But senior civil servant David Sterling, who has been left in charge of public finances in the absence of ministers, has to sanction the 5% in-year cutback.

If no budget has been agreed by the end of July, the legislation stipulates Mr Sterling can only spend an amount equivalent to 95% of the 2016 budget across the whole of the 2017/18 financial year.

Even if devolution was restored by the June 29 deadline, there would be a gap to the formation of an Executive, and the Assembly would struggle to implement a budget in just a few weeks. It could have to be done on an emergency basis.

The Belfast Telegraph also revealed this week that the absence of an Assembly could mean a further hold on the long-delayed welfare reform proposals.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann warned the election should not distract parties from the financial problems.

"While the Secretary of State has provided some further breathing space to allow an Executive to be formed, no one should forget that we are rapidly heading towards a real budget crisis," he said.

"Parties cannot be complacent about this window and allow Northern Ireland to endure further weeks of rudderless drifting. While some may be keen to now switch full tilt into election mode, we need to remember that just last month the people of Northern Ireland elected 90 MLAs to make decisions locally. That can't just be brushed off until after June 8."

Mr Brokenshire, who has already side-stepped two earlier deadlines, emphasised the legislation allowed for an Executive to be in place before June 29.

But the reality is that the five main parties are unlikely to shift back into negotiation mode until after the results of the general election - likely to be the week beginning Monday, June 12.

He said providing "flexibility" for a new administration in the aftermath of the national poll was the right think to do.

"Since the Assembly election on March 2 our focus has been on re-establishing inclusive, devolved government," he said.

"The forthcoming general election does not change that. This Bill will therefore enable an Executive to be formed in the coming days should an agreement be reached.

"However, if an agreement is not possible before the general election, it is right that we provide flexibility for an incoming government to act in the best interests of Northern Ireland and the space for the parties to conclude a deal.

"This Bill gives the parties the legal authority to convene the Assembly, appoint ministers and get on with the resumption of devolved government at any point up to June 29."

His Bill will provide the setting of a Northern Ireland regional rate, enabling household bills to be issued in their usual cycle of 10 monthly payments.

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