Belfast Telegraph

Quangos cull could save £400m as Robinson insists draft blueprint ready to go

By Liam Clarke

Advanced plans which will dramatically slash the number of councils and education boards are to be presented to Executive ministers for approval today.

First Minister Peter Robinson confirmed to the Belfast Telegraph that a long-awaited draft Programme for Government will be put to party leaders and Executive ministers after months of waiting.

He said the programme, which will see significant cuts to the number of councils and education boards across Northern Ireland, is “ready to go” if rubber-stamped after today’s meeting.

The sweeping plans, designed to do away with layers of needless bureaucracy, will signal the next stage of the Reform of Public Administration by slashing our 26 current councils to 11.

Mr Robinson said long-awaited plans to merge our five education boards into one body, the Education and Skills Authority (ESA), are now also “in the final stages”.

The overall aim of the Programme is to produce major long-term savings of more than £400m over the next 25 years. It will also reduce the number of quangos, which grew under direct rule.

In late 2009 then Environment Minister Edwin Poots said £438m could be made over 25 years.

Plans to reduce the number of councils by 15 were mooted several years ago but have been caught up in delays.

Had agreement been reached sooner, there would have been 150 fewer councillors to vote for last May. This could have saved almost £1.6m a year, on the basis the basic allowance of councillors is almost £9,739, with £6,150 extra for chairing a council.

Having 11 councils would also mean 15 fewer chief executives — and three of those earn more than £100,000.

It emerged in the summer the team setting up the ESA cost the taxpayer more than £11.5m from 2005 until the end of March. But the Department of Education believes the ESA would eventually save Stormont up to £20m a year by stream-lining the five boards.

Mr Robinson added the Cohesion Sharing and Integration strategy designed to break down the barriers between the two communities and save money by sharing facilities was ready to be considered.

In 2007 a commissioned report found that segregation and duplication of services was costing the Exchequer £1.5bn a year.

A paper on the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minster’s controversial £20m Social Investment Fund (SIF) is ready to go out to consultation.

SIF, which aims is to combat poverty and inequality in targeted areas, was derided by the SDLP and UUP as a “slush fund”, but will now be put before the public.

Mr Robinson dismissed claims by UUP chief Tom Elliott that the Programme was held up by disagreements between the DUP and Sinn Fein, saying the parties were broadly in agreement.

“In reality, the Programme for Government is at an advanced stage and there is no difference between us at all,” he said.

“There are a lot of issues we have pushed up to the line and we need final sign-off from Sinn Fein on them, but there are no major differences with Sinn Fein on the Programme for Government.”

The First Minister said the draft programme would have been given to party leaders on Tuesday, the day the issued was debated in the Assembly, but Sinn Fein had cancelled the meeting. This was because Martin McGuinness was being temporarily replaced |as Deputy First Minister by John O’Dowd in order to allow him to run for the Irish presidency.

He said a longer term delay was caused by the uncertainty over the devolution of corporation tax.

All Executive parties want it devolved so they can cut it to make Northern Ireland more competitive with the Republic’s 12% rate. But this has not yet been agreed by the Treasury and any reduction would lead to a reduction in the block grant.

“There was a view that corporation tax was such a game-changer that to have a Programme for Government when you didn’t know the outcome of that would be difficult,” Mr Robinson said.

He added: “Martin and I had a meeting with the Secretary of State. We now recognise that the Government has a ‘next steps’ process in relation to corporation tax rather than a firm answer.

“This means that there is no point us delaying our Programme for Government any longer.”

Analysis

A deal has finally been hammered out, now it must be implemented

Peter Robinson didn’t go into the fine detail, and that is where the devil generally lurks.

But, on the face of it, the two main parties have made considerable progress on the Programme for Government.

The areas of agreement Mr Robinson mentioned are very similar to those Martin McGuinness predicted would be nailed down by now, when he spoke to me in July.

With both leaders on record, there can be no excuse if their parties don’t deliver.

Provided they do their part, the onus passes to their smaller partners to ease the process through, or, if they can’t in conscience do that, withdraw to the back benches to regroup.

Individual ministers must not use the autonomy which the ‘silo system’ gives them to dig their heels in on every issue.

The Executive has opted not to raise local taxes like water charges or regional rates.

This means that, once all the fat is trimmed from spending and any easy economies are made, there will be painful cuts to public services.

There are a few things in the Belfast Telegraph’s 10-point manifesto which could still be done to help ease the effects.

Areas where efficiencies will be less painful, like the Prison Service, must be targeted.

The cost of division should be tackled and the schools estate streamlined to save money and reduce sectarian division.

A benefits take-up campaign would ensure that everyone entitled to State aid gets it.

That would increase the inflow of funds from Westminster.

The Executive could also allocate its £10bn bank account in such a way as to encourage lending to businesses and homeowners.

Public bodies could lend their weight to that of consumers, forming group buying schemes for power.

And, of course, the Treasury must allow us to reduce corporation tax.

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