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Assembly facing paralysis on welfare, flags and spending

By Noel McAdam

Stormont is set to lurch from crisis to crisis in the months ahead, it was warned today as the Assembly returned from its two-month summer break.

The Executive's smaller parties voiced deep concern, with the Alliance Party warning departments were facing their biggest-ever financial crisis.

And there are fears that with the parties focused on elections – the Westminster battle in less than nine months, the Assembly one in 2016 – the already-slow legislative programme could be further hampered.

Ministers also have to agree on the next round of spending decisions within weeks, followed immediately by negotiations on a full budget across all departments for an extra year.

The Assembly had been due to dissolve next May but, to shift it into line with the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales, it will run for an additional 12 months, requiring an underpinning Budget.

But with relations deteriorating between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the failure to resume talks on flags, parading and the past – and the welfare reform stalemate – many fear our political institutions could collapse.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers flagged up the fears in a speech at the weekend in which she pointed to concern that political leaders had lost their ability to "find a way through."

Apart from financial constraints and the apparent agreement to find another £60m for Health Minister Edwin Poots, there is speculation other major projects could be hit by the double knock-on effect of dispute and inertia.

These include the blueprint for a 'shared future', which, while slowly progressing, has yet to achieve specified funding.

A number of legislative measures also have to be in place to allow the province's 11 new supercouncils, elected in May, to go live next April, finally replacing the current 26.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan told the Belfast Telegraph: "As the Westminster Government's austerity agenda continues to bite hard, we will have to make very difficult choices about how we spend our ever-decreasing public service budget.

"This will require mature political debate. Unfortunately, the deteriorating relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein will make this difficult."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt warned of the "smoke and mirrors" being generated by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness' office, and said the next year should be about "delivery".

"But the last three years were meant to have been about delivery," he added. "People have been badly let down."

And Alliance Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry warned Stormont was facing its "biggest financial crisis to date".

He said: "The ongoing refusal of other parties to acknowledge the deepening crisis is the biggest stumbling block our legislative process faces."

His party leader David Ford also called on the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party to resume the inter-party talks that fell apart after the Parades Commission banned the return leg of a contentious march.

He said: "They can all talk the talk, yet action is seriously lacking. Only through dialogue will we find solutions."

So what is in Stormont's in-tray?

A full legislative programme ahead for the Assembly includes:

Planning

Subordinate legislation will introduce reforms to the planning system and transfer the majority of planning functions to the newly elected district councils from April 1 2015.

It will establish a two-tier planning system with councils responsible for developing new local area plans for their areas as well as determining the vast majority of planning applications.

A new single Strategic Planning Policy Statement will consolidate over 20 separate planning policy statements into one, signalling a new approach to the preparation of regional planning policy.

Business and environment

The Better Regulation Bill which seeks to reduce the number of environmental permits businesses need to hold.

Voluntary Prosperity Agreements are being developed with progressive businesses who get a cut in red tape as they agree to invest in environmental improvements.

Taxis

A number of Statutory Rules will be brought forward to update the regulation of the taxi industry, "providing for a safe, fair and fit for purpose industry, to the benefit of users and providers alike".

Legal complaints

A Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill will provide powers to a new Legal Services Oversight Commissioner, creating new complaints handling committees for barristers and solicitors.

Public sector reform

The forthcoming Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) review will benchmark Northern Ireland's public services against other OECD countries, making recommendations for a work programme for the next mandate.

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