Voluntary exit for 20,000 Civil Service staff could be blocked by budget stalemate in Northern Ireland
The voluntary scheme set up to shed 20,000 public sector jobs in four years could fall apart if Stormont cannot agree a budget soon.
News of the looming debacle was circulating even as MLAs joined forces to condemn cuts in the voluntary and community sector in the Assembly.
All Executive parties backed a UUP motion that stated "decisions are being made by individual Executive departments with no consideration of the impact of these services or the effect that they will have on vulnerable in society". There was less focus on the fact the same Executive parties that ran the ministries were taking the decisions they were now criticising.
Meanwhile, a senior civil servant confirmed there had been warnings that the Civil Service redundancy scheme could founder.
"We have to get replies back to people who have applied by the end of the month and if we aren't in a position do that then it would be very hard to find a way round it," he said.
Bumper Graham of Nipsa, the public sector union opposed to the scheme because it means permanent jobs cuts, said "the voluntary exit scheme is an integral part of the Stormont House Agreement which can't be implemented without the money it provides".
Ending the voluntary exit scheme would fatally undermine the Executive and the Government's deal to rebalance Northern Ireland's economy. Much of the money is already earmarked for higher welfare payments than the rest of the UK, and to pay for the future reduction in corporation tax.
Former Finance Minster Sammy Wilson yesterday blamed civil servants for hoodwinking ministers with self-serving advice to cut the voluntary or community sector, often at less cost, rather than advise politicians to cut "core departmental functions" even if it was the best way forward.
Mr Wilson said the Department for Regional Development budget had been cut by a single figure percentage, but within that, community transport had absorbed a massive 37% reduction in its budget. Turning his fire on Sinn Fein, he condemned Education Minister John O'Dowd for ending the Bookstart scheme - where his department funded a charity to provide books to schoolchildren - in March.
Mr Wilson said it was not long after Mr O'Dowd had given the go-ahead for Colaiste Dhoire, an Irish language school opening with just 14 pupils.
Other MLAs spoke up for projects close to their hearts. The SDLP's Alban Maginness pointed out that the NI Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, which helps reintegrate former prisoners into society, had seen 33% of its budget, over £1.34m, cut. He argued that it created dangers for society as a whole, and increased the chances of reoffending if ex-offenders were left without help or supervision.
Sides lining up to play blame game
Many of us would agree with what our MLAs said yesterday. It was, after all, like apple pie — sweet and comforting, but not so healthy.
People wanted to seem nice. They wanted to sock it to the ministers in the other parties and show what big hearts they had.
Unfortunately, it looked like fiddling while Rome burned. I agree with Alban Maginness that Niacro should have its budget restored and I agree with Sammy Wilson that cutting the Bookstart scheme is a disgrace.
Yet is this really the discussion to be having when we are so deep in a financial hole that we need to borrow £700m to have any hope of ever getting out again?
There is no sign of the June deadline being met. If we don’t get our ducks in a row and our budget balanced by then, the politicians will start to lose what little power they have. The civil servants will be duty bound to move in and ensure the sums add up by cutting departmental budgets by up to 25%. That would put the squeeze on MLAs. And as further cuts kick in it is hard to see Stormont surviving. There are signs, even now, of a blame game starting among the politicians, with parties attempting to put responsibility for the problems on their rivals.
We could stagger on under Civil Service rule for months, but Northern Ireland would be in a miserable state at the end of it.
What we need is an Executive that can take hard decisions and then stand over them, not try to blame someone else once they are taken.