UUP leader hits out at parties on ‘slush funds’
Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott has accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of a “tribal carve-up” of public money into “slush funds” as he stoked up the pressure ahead of today’s crunch Budget debate.
The chances of an agreed Budget were close to zero last night with UUP and SDLP sources both stating that their ministers |would not vote for the Budget without major concessions |on health and other areas of |spending.
The Budget was opposed by both parties at last Thursday’s Executive meeting but passed by the combined votes of DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance ministers. It is now a breach of the ministerial code if all ministers do not back it today in the Assembly, but there is no sign of that happening.
Mr Elliott and SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie described two anti-poverty funds, the Social Inclusion Fund and the Social Investment Funds, as “slush funds” and demanded their abolition.
Grants from the funds are disbursed by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) which is controlled by the DUP and Sinn Fein.
“I suspect that money will go into projects in Sinn Fein and DUP constituencies or areas which they favour,” Mr Elliott claimed.
However, Finance Minister Sammy |Wilson said that their purpose was to “assist those most in need”.
Separate |amendments from the UUP |and SDLP have been accepted |for debate. Both demand |sweeping changes which would |effectively rip up the existing |Budget. The scene is now set for a rancorous all-day sitting which is scheduled to end at 5.30pm, but could run into the evening.
Tom Elliott, the UUP leader, dismissed the proposed Budget as “a shambles”.
He called for a voluntary coalition, like the ones at Westminster and in Dublin, to replace the present mandatory system.
Mr Elliott hit back at claims from the DUP that his party must accept crucial responsibility for the cuts because it backed the |Tories in the election.
He pointed out that the DUP had backed the Tories in key |finance votes in Westminster.
Ms Ritchie was equally scathing.
“As it stands this DUP/Sinn Fein/Alliance Budget if passed in its current form would mean more than 9,000 public service job losses, a pay freeze for almost 7,400 civil servants earning less than the average industrial wage and the potential introduction of a hike in student fees,” she said.
Mr Elliott said his party’s amendment “would specify that Health is the priority and it would contain some specific proposals on the A5 road development as well as the slush funds”.
The SDLP’s amendment seeks to rebalance the economy and calls for increased spending on health, student support, tourism, construction and other sectors
Last week Mr Wilson made his own adjustments to the Budget, finding £430m extra to spend.
He allocated £189m extra to Health, a UUP department where Michael McGimpsey is minister.
However Mr Elliott says that £100m a year should have been given to that department.
A problem for Mr McGimpsey and Danny Kennedy, the two UUP ministers, and Alex Attwood of the SDLP is that their ministerial pledge of office specifies that they should “support, and to act in |accordance with, all decisions of the Executive”.
This has raised the possibility that UUP and SDLP ministers may resign rather than support a Budget they do not agree with.
However, they have received legal advice that since the Executive failed to impose a whip they are free to stay away when the vote takes place, following a precedent set by Nigel Dodds of the DUP in 2008.
It seems likely that Mr Attwood will not attend tomorrow’s vote. The UUP are still considering their options.
The new funds to which the UUP and SDLP object are administered by the OFMDFM. They are: The Social Investment Fund, which will provide £20m a year for the next four years to cover “improvement schemes in disadvantaged communities” and The Social Protection Fund, intended to “assist those in |severe hardship as a result |of the economic downturn”.