Row erupts between ministers over future water charges policy
Stormont Ministers were at loggerheads last night over the introduction of water charges as the Executive prepared to take crunch decisions.
Finance Minister Peter Robinson rounded on health chief Michael McGimpsey over his insistence parties in the Executive should face up to of their election manifestoes - opposing water charges.
Warning against grandstanding, the DUP deputy leader said it was not acceptable for ministers to oppose additional revenue from water "yet hope to be defeated" so they can get a bigger share-out for their departments.
Insisting the Executive would have to move forward on the issue together, he added: "The days of not facing up to the consequence of difficult decisions are over."
Mr Robinson said the choice for Ministers was to accept the broad outline of the proposals set out by the Independent Review Panel last week or accept the cuts in their budgets.
Mr McGimpsey said all parties had gone to the electorate in the February Assembly elections on the basis of opposing water charges.
"Now it's uncomfortable, and I understand it's uncomfortable for us in Government when we go in and look at the books," the Ulster Unionist told the BBC's Let's Talk programme.
"But this was the understanding that we had on the doorsteps in February, we all combined, all the major parties said the same thing, we will not charge you for water for your own households?"
Mr Robinson argued: "It is one thing that the Health Minister gets it wrong when attempting to recall what other parties said during and prior to the Assembly election about water charging but it is rather poor form that he does not know what his own party's position was and is on the issue."
And he said his own part had made clear that while there may be justification for a separate charging mechanism for water services " there does not need to be a significant increase in the overall tax burden."
Ahead of Thursday's Executive meeting which is expected to reach a verdict on the water charges controversy, the Finance Minister commented: "Now that we have the facts out in the open let the debate be open and the result transparent as well.
"It is the responsibility of Executive Ministers to work to deliver on the policy they advocated not to rewrite it in order to catch some transient wave of popularity.
"The issue of water charging is one on which the Executive shall move forward together or not at all. The Executive should only proceed if and when Ministers unanimously agree the way forward."
The panel, chaired by Professor Paddy Hillyard, last week said households should not have to pay any additional charges for water until April 2009.
The public is already paying a total of £109m towards the costs of water and sewerage services each year as part of rates bills, it added.
Mr Robinson went on: "Given the share of resources which are spent on Health and Education clearly these areas will inevitably be disproportionately affected. Ministers have already been informed of the implications of decisions that they will take in this area."
The General Consumer Council said the report's proposed average household bill in 2009 would be £120, instead of the £334 envisaged under Direct Rule.