Fury as John O'Dowd is accused of spending twice as much on Irish as on literacy and numeracy consultations
A Sinn Fein minister has been accused of exploiting his office to pursue party goals rather than policy issues.
But Education Minister John O'Dowd rejected the claims from Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt over cash being spent on public consultations by his department.
Mr Nesbitt – who compiled consultation costs across almost all Stormont departments – said Mr O'Dowd had spent twice the amount consulting the public on Irish-medium education compared to improving literacy and numeracy.
The Ulster Unionist chief, who also chairs the Stormont committee which monitors First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, has called for changes in the way decisions on public consultations are made.
Written Assembly answers show the Department of Education spent more than £46,500 on a review of Irish-medium education since 2007 – when devolution returned – compared to just £22,000 on a literacy and numeracy strategy.
In 2008, for example, the department spent £46,447 on a formal launch with documents online, a series of public meetings and meetings on request from various groups – compared to £22,827 on a review of the literacy and numeracy strategy which involved Barnardos and the Parent Advice Centre, and £23,418 on the "every school a good school" initiative on special educational needs.
Mr Nesbitt argued: "Sinn Fein are certainly following their own agenda in pursuit of the promotion of the Irish language. A ferocious amount of money has been spent, the sums involved are expodential.
"It has spent twice more on consulting on the Irish language than on literacy and numeracy; and significantly more than was spent on the early years strategy; a vital component of the education strategy for the entire province."
Mr O'Dowd hit back, however, saying: "Public consultation is an important element, and in many instances, a legal requirement in developing policy and legislation.
"Rather than nit-picking over the cost of consultations he should welcome the fact that key stakeholders, elected representatives and indeed his constituents are afforded the opportunity to respond to key changes being proposed for education here.
"It is also disingenuous of Mr Nesbitt to use the cost of consultations as an indication of departmental priorities. According to his flawed logic I am not focusing on key areas such as literacy and numeracy and early years. The reality is that these are two of the areas that I have prioritised."
He said since 2010, when the draft Early Years (0-6) Strategy was launched, investment in pre-school services has increased from £73m to £86m.
"I would suggest Mr Nesbitt should check his facts in future before commenting," the minister added.
Some of the issues Stormont Departments have launched public consultations on:
* Department of Agriculture and Rural Development: Eggs and chicks regulations, Lough Neagh level scheme.
* Department of Social Development: Shankill Road and Falls Road tree planting schemes, virtual shops at Castlereagh Street, Donegall Road pedestrian island.
* Department of Education: Teacher education in climate change, increased contributions to the NI Teachers Pension Scheme.