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Stormont spending on wining and dining soars while cuts slash vital services

Police and universities to be hit as £2.5m goes on hospitality at the Hill

By Noel McAdam

Stormont spent more than £2.5m on hospitality last year - about £50,000 every week, it has been revealed.

Despite the recession and looming cuts, the total departmental 'wine and dine' bill is up by a shocking 22% over the past two years.

The figures emerged as jobs, victims' groups and tourist attractions are under threat as the impact of the Executive's spending squeeze begins to bite.

Police and court services, the two universities – Queen's and UU – further education colleges and arts organisations are also facing cuts.

Ministers already have to make savings of more than £77m, with a further £87m likely to be added in the next few months – totalling £164m.

The money has to be found by the end of this financial year – the end of March – a relatively short period in terms of governmental schemes and functions.

Politicians were at loggerheads yesterday as it emerged:

  • 100 Environment Agency workers are losing their jobs;
  • a victims' group is facing shutdown; and
  • tourist attractions may have to close.

The threats emerged as Assembly answers obtained by TUV leader Jim Allister show the total hospitality bill for the departments and their arm's-length bodies in the past year was £2,599,522.

The total would be even higher – but Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's department has so far refused to provide figures.

Mr Allister said: "Of course, some hospitality spending is appropriate, but is it necessary on this scale – £50,000 per week?

"It is time Executive ministers clamped down hard on such lavish spending of taxpayers' hard-earned cash.

"Ministers can't expect to be taken seriously in talking up a difficult budgetary climate while failing to cap and control the spend on wining and dining."

The North Antrim MLA also uncovered that "despite all the talk about austerity and departments cutting services, individual departments spent 22% more than they did two years ago" – the last time the exercise was conducted.

"In fact, the true figure is even higher, because the lead department OFMDFM has failed to provide information on its spend, though I know in 2011/12 it was £161,000. What has it to hide?" he asked.

There was no explanation from OFMDFM yesterday but a statement said it would respond to Mr Allister "in due course".

The Ulster Unionist Party, whose minister Danny Kennedy abstained on the vote over the monitoring round, went on the offensive against the cuts.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt called it an "utter disgrace" that a support group for former members of the security forces faces closure.

His colleague Robin Swann said: "It is ridiculous that at the height of the tourist season (to be) cutting staff in some of our top tourist attractions."

The party's MEP Jim Nicholson also said a warning of an across-the-board 4.5% cut in funding for victims' groups was "atrocious".

Factfile

The highest hospitality spend was by the Department of Education whose bill came to £710,000. Next in line came the Department of Trade and Industry (DETI) – £534,000 total – with its arm's length-bodies which include Invest NI. Third highest then was the arm's-length bodies of the Department of Health with a total of £329,000.

PSNI: Freeze on recruitment puts public at risk

A freeze on police recruitment – and increased risk to public safety.

Justice Minister David Ford has warned that 'front line services' will be affected as his department takes the biggest Budget hit – £22.3m out of a £78m total.

Further cuts in the next monitoring round in October are likely to push that up to a total of £47m, 4.4% of the department's budget which he indicated would have a severe effect on his department's work.

"On July 3 the chief constable spoke to the Policing Board about what was then seen as the potential of 2.9% cuts, not 4.4%, and he said that would directly impact on keeping people safe (and) police recruitment," Mr Ford said.

The reductions could also impact on courts services but no final decisions have been taken.

Tourism: Attractions face closure as staff cut

One of the tourism jewels in the Antrim Coast crown is struggling to hold onto sufficient staff to allow it to remain open.

Two other attractions, the Keep at Narrow Water and Grey Point Fort in Helen's Bay are already facing closure. Robin Masefield of Friends of Grey Point Fort, said: "It seems crazy to me to cut back now, precisely when there's more interest than ever."

A statement from the Environment Agency said contingency measures to maintain service levels as much as practicable are being put in place.

Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann said: "This gives me no reassurance for the long term viability of our top built and natural heritage attractions, or indeed how the people losing their jobs are being treated in a fair or reasonable manner."

Environment Agency: 80 workers axed

Around 80 workers at the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) have lost their jobs – and the final figure could reach 145.

Some of the losses involve temporary posts but a number of those affected have been working at NIEA for years.

It comes days after Belfast firm MSF said it was laying off staff because of cuts to roads services, with possibly more to come.

NIEA said it had no choice but to release a number of temporary agency staff earlier than planned.

"The majority of these temporary staff were taken on for the summer months at a number of the NIEA visitor attractions."

The UUP said: "Whether people are employed on permanent contracts or as agency workers they still deserve to be treated with respect and dignity."

Further education: 4% savings imposed

An almost 4% spending cut is being imposed on Queen's University and the University of Ulster and, according to Higher Education Minister Stephen Farry: "It will now be for them to determine how to best manage this."

Regional further education colleges are in line for cuts too and there are also "consequences" for training and other skills development.

Mr Farry has been quick to point out the anomaly of the education budget for schools being protected while universities and colleges take hits.

"Around 40 per cent of young people aged between 16 and 19 are in further education and training. The budget for their counterparts within schools has been given full protection, but the budget for those young people attending further education and training has not," he said.

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