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George Osborne warns Sinn Fein: You can't breach budget spending limits

By Liam Clarke

Published 17/06/2015

Finance Minister Arlene Foster in her Parliament Buildings Office before the announcement of the Assembly budget statement
Finance Minister Arlene Foster in her Parliament Buildings Office before the announcement of the Assembly budget statement

The Chancellor has directly called on Sinn Fein to implement welfare reforms and warned that it is not acceptable for Stormont to break spending limits imposed by the Government.

On Monday Finance Minister Arlene Foster secured backing to draw down Treasury funds for a spending plan some have dubbed a "fantasy" budget.

George Osborne's blunt words were in response to DUP MP Sammy Wilson at Treasury questions.

Mr Wilson referred to Monday's Stormont debate where Ms Foster's budget was voted through, but without the funds to run it.

This means breaching spending limits set by Government by over £600 million. The budget will complete its progress next week.

Mr Wilson told the House of Commons: "Yesterday, as a consequence of the refusal by Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party to implement welfare reform, the Northern Ireland Assembly gave authority to the departments to breach spending limits and increase spending by 6% over the block grant.

"What steps will the Chancellor take to ensure that assemblies and parliaments across the United Kingdom do not recklessly breach spending limits?"

In his reply, Mr Osborne suggested that there may be some more turns of the wheel before Stormont collapses.

Mr Osborne told Mr Wilson he suspected "this House is going to have to come back to (it) on a number of occasions" - an indication that more legislation may be required. It could refer to DUP proposals for Westminster to take back powers over welfare and benefits and implement cuts over Stormont's head. This could bring about the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

There was certainly no hint of more money from London.

Mr Osborne said: "We have a clear agreement in the Stormont House Agreement that we now expect all parties to implement, including Sinn Fein.

"Frankly, it is not acceptable for any devolved administration simply to breach the spending limits that have been agreed with the United Kingdom Government, so that is something we will have to address."

He defended welfare reforms as a good thing which would "not only deliver value for money for the taxpayer, but ensure that more people in Northern Ireland are released from the poverty trap and are able to work".

Afterwards Mr Wilson said: "I'm glad the Chancellor views the situation in Northern Ireland as a serious matter and has committed that the House of Commons may revisit this issue in due course.

"I also welcome the stern rebuke he issued to the SDLP and SF reminding them that the best way forward is for them to stand by their Stormont House Agreement made last December."

He slammed the behaviour of nationalist rivals as "downright irresponsible as well as a flagrant breach of the agreement they signed up to".

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