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Robinson in warning over budget dithering

By David Gordon

First Minister Peter Robinson has warned of a mid-January deadline for agreement on a new Northern Ireland budget.

Mr Robinson called for a Stormont Budget deal to be concluded by Christmas to give Government bodies certainty on their future spending levels.

And he said failure to agree “by the second week of January” would trigger an emergency procedure, with the Department of Finance taking charge by itself.

The planned new Northern Ireland budget is to cover a four-year period beginning next April. It is being discussed against the backdrop of cuts imposed by the Westminster Government under the UK-wide spending review.

The Stormont Executive is required to firstly issue a draft budget for public consultation. But the timetable for reaching agreement across the party has slipped, leaving Northern Ireland as the only UK devolved region still without budget plans in place.

Mr Robinson told MLAs: “People want to agree a budget, and there is serious engagement to that end. However, one never knows whether the budget has been agreed until hands go up in an Executive meeting or in the Chamber.”

The First Minister said there would be “a real difficulty” for Government departments if the task is not completed by Christmas, as they “need to know how much money they have in order to take their decisions”.

“By the second week of January, the Department of Finance and Personnel will have to prepare its own budget, which it will set at the lower level of 75% until the end of July, at which point it can move to 95% of the previous year’s budget. There is a clear downside if it is not done by mid-January.”

SDLP MLA Declan O'Loan raised concerns about publicly-funded bodies having to warn employees of potential redundancies through “protective notice” procedures. Mr O'Loan said: “That is causing great apprehension. Can he reassure those organisations and their staff?”

The First Minister replied: “We are aware of that.”

The Executive meets again this Thursday, but the chances of an agreement by then look extremely slim.

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