Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Ministers agree on budget after months of wrangling

After months of both public and private wrangling, Stormont Ministers have finally agreed their first overall budget - without taking a vote.

Finance Minister Peter Robinson is to reveal the details of the departmental share-out in the Assembly later today including increases for both the health service and housing, two of the most controversial spending areas.

The budget package and programme for government blueprint for the next three years, as well as an industrial investment strategy stretching ahead for the next decade were signed off at a special Executive session yesterday.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein pointed to the achievement of agreement among Ministers as indicative of a relatively peaceful path through the Assembly.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told Assembly members the special Executive session had been "very positive and constructive" in dealing with the three vital issues.

At the last minute the budget was taken off the agenda for last Thursday's scheduled Executive meeting as negotiations between officials and Ministers went down to the wire.

Now Mr Robinson is expected to outline a number of significant differences from the draft budget plans outlined in November, according to senior sources.

Sinn Fein said one key element to which the DUP has agreed is implementation of equality, which should begin to take on real meaning in the procurement process for government contracts and policy making.

Ulster Unionist sources said Health Minister Michael McGimpsey had scored a " tremendous victory" in winning additional resources for health and social care, after a protracted public spat with Mr Robinson and Iris Robinson, chair of the health scrutiny committee.

And in addition to extra cash - Mr McGimpsey had revised his demands to around an additional £165m over the three-year period - it is believed the Department will also have more flexibilty over spending within its overall allocation.

Both health and SDLP Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie's housing programme received additional money from the underspend total in the last quarterly monitoring round.

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