Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Stormont spending squabbles: options for more cuts drawn up

According to Stormont sources, they are working on an agreement reached "in principle" by the Executive to offset the Treasury's reductions in Northern Ireland's Westminster grant as a result of the stalemate on welfare reform
According to Stormont sources, they are working on an agreement reached "in principle" by the Executive to offset the Treasury's reductions in Northern Ireland's Westminster grant as a result of the stalemate on welfare reform

Senior civil servants have already begun work on implementing a further £87m of spending cuts – on top of the £78m already agreed by Ministers.

According to Stormont sources, they are working on an agreement reached "in principle" by the Executive to offset the Treasury's reductions in Northern Ireland's Westminster grant as a result of the stalemate on welfare reform.

It is understood the head of the civil service, Dr Malcolm McKibben, has told departments to prepare for the impact of a second tranche of cutbacks following the next quarterly spending monitoring round.

And it has also emerged the Executive is not likely to meet again for another three weeks – around September 11.

Against the backdrop of the meetings vacuum, a political storm is growing over the fall-out from the last, delayed monitoring round in which it was decided that health and education will be exempt from further cuts.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness yesterday asked for a face-to-face meeting with chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride after Health Minister Edwin Poots said he would refuse to implement cuts which compromise public safety.

But the Belfast Telegraph has learned that a delegation, including Dr McBride and John Compton, head of the Health and Public Safety Board, along with Mr Poots briefed Mr McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson at Stormont Castle in April.

A Powerpoint presentation at that meeting concluded the Executive faced hard choices in health, including reducing the standard or range of services, or imposing additional charges on patients.

It also warned the impact could include increased waiting times for elective services, a deterioration in the quality and safety of services and "compromising the delivery of statutory requirements".

DUP MLA Gordon Dunne yesterday asked: "Did Martin McGuinness just not listen to the chief medical officer at his last briefing in April, or did he choose to ignore what he was told by Michael McBride some months ago?

"That meeting was held at Edwin Poots' request, because the shadow of welfare reform was already looming over the Department of Health and the potential impact was starting to emerge.

"When Sinn Fein walked away from the welfare package a massive credibility gap was created, which they are desperately attempting to paper over. This rushed request for a meeting with the chief medical officer is proof of that."

Mr McGuinness said he was seeking an urgent meeting with Dr McBride after Mr Poots reiterated his demand to the Assembly earlier this year that he needed a £160m budget injection.

"His DUP colleague, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, bid for just £40m in the June monitoring round," said Mr McGuinness. "Mr Poots was allocated £20m additional funding and £13m to cover an overspend."

"The issue of poor management of the health budget was identified by Mr Simon Hamilton during the monitoring round," the deputy First Minister added.

"There are real pressures on all of our health and public services which have been stripped bare by billions of pounds of cuts made to the Executive's budget by the Tory government."

There has been no response from Mr Hamilton's department to a series of questions put by the Belfast Telegraph.

Factfile

  • Victims groups, Housing Executive tenants, tourist attractions, QUB, the University of Ulster and arts organisations are among the targets feeling the heat of Stormont spending cuts.
  •  In this financial year Executive Ministers have to make savings of more than £78m, with a further £87m likely to be added in the next few months – totalling £164m.

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