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This week at Stormont it's been like watching that Deal or No Deal show with Noel Edmonds...

By Will Chambre

It's like watching that ‘Deal or No Deal’ show with Noel Edmonds – NI Executive ministers walk up to the middle and open a box hoping that they will not have their budget slashed, all the while hoping for a call from the banker – aka Chancellor George Osborne - to offer them a deal.

But even before they open their box they all know the pain to be exacted upon public services...

Even as a collective sigh of relief was heard that a draft budget had actually been agreed, news headlines blared that we were still screwed.

With the HM Treasury £100m ‘payday’ loan (ie when we get our block grant/pay day next year we’ll see the £100m taken out of our account) now set to rattle round the Stormont piggy bank, it had seemed that financial catastrophe had been averted.

With all such ‘payday’ loans it pays to read the small print: small print that tells us that we’ll lose that £100m next year; that it hasn’t solved all the problems of this financial year; we’ll still be ‘fined’ for not implementing welfare reforms. And, it was only the threat that ministers would have their devolved toys taken away that sharpened thinking.

Of course, in terms of the Executive it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for the draft budget. Voted through by a majority comprising of DUP and Sinn Fein ministers, Alliance and Ulster Unionist ministers sat on their hands and the SDLP cried “foul”.

It was always going to be that way, but as they say the devil lies in the detail, of which there is little.

However, no sooner than the devolved administration salvaged its powers from the brink of despair, gloom piled up yet again.

Health’s so-called ring fencing seems like a very loose fence indeed, as the £160m the health and social care board asked for has ended up as £80m. Wards, beds and services are in for the chop and amidst much wailing it seems that other departments are all feeling the crunch.

Finance minister Simon Hamlton’s magic bullet looking forward to next year is to offer voluntary redundancy to huge swathes of civil and public servants.

Unfortunately, voluntary redundancy means that the post is lost as well as the person. Could this mean that there will be further pressures on the very services that this measure means to protect?

At least the consultation responses to the draft budget should make interesting reading!

Health on the agenda

After their brief holiday/recess for the Halloween mid-term break MLAs are back down to business with a review of waiting times for elective care being debated at Monday’s plenary session, followed closely by another private members debate on pancreatic cancer.

Tuesday looks like it will be a heated affair, when the issues raised by Maria Cahill are the focus of a DUP-backed debate relating to the BBC Spotlight programme on her allegations. 

In committee rooms, members are set for a hectic set of sessions as they try and get down to business already underway and new items. The committee for agriculture and rural development will be hearing a briefing from the Rural Community Network on anti-poverty and social inclusion, while the employment and learning committee will continue its inquiry work on post school special educational need provision.

The committee for education will once more be tackling inquiry issues, as they continue their investigation into integrated and shared education.

At the committee for the office of first minister and deputy first minister they will be looking at plans for their inquiry into ‘building a united community’.

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