Belfast Telegraph

Talks continue over budget deal

First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will continue talks on a new Assembly budget amid hopes a deal could be close.

The political leaders are returning from an Isle of Man meeting of the British Irish Council, but officials have continued to press for a final agreement at Stormont.

A deal has yet to be formally closed, but there is speculation a package to cope with the £4 billion cuts from London may be finalised within days.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams congratulated those involved in the talks, and while stopping short of saying a deal was done, he said he was "hopeful" over the negotiations.

Assembly parties urged caution ahead of a final agreement, but it is believed they are close to a plan that covers the entire four-year budget period, despite earlier concerns from critics that a short-term one-year agreement might have emerged.

If a deal can be brokered it is likely to include a pay freeze for civil servants, which could deliver hundreds of millions in savings, while politicians could argue the move would help avoid job losses.

Talks are ongoing on revenue-raising opportunities.

But the SDLP's Alex Attwood has urged that the deal include an £80 million four-year scheme to ease the burden of welfare cuts which are being imposed from Westminster.

The west Belfast MLA said: "I have proposed to the Executive that we establish a Solidarity and Hardship Fund of at least £20 million per annum initially, which we would use to mitigate the welfare cuts where they impacted disproportionately on any group of benefit recipients, or where they were just downright unfair.

"The Executive invited me to produce this paper and when I circulated it last week I asked OFMDFM (Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister) for an urgent meeting to discuss it. So far I have heard nothing back and the Budget Review Group has not met for a fortnight."

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