Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Public debate on cuts essential

Spending cuts are only fashionable among opposition parties. No Government likes to be seen as cutting back on public services or the creation of public jobs. While the Conservatives have been warning for some months that tight financial controls will have to be introduced following the bailout of the banks, it was only recently that Gordon Brown and his Labour Government could bring themselves to admit that the public money supply would be dramatically cut in the years to come.

Now the Prime Minister has gone further and pledged to introduce a Bill that would commit any future Government to halving the UK's huge public debt within four years. It is a Bill and a concern that he is unlikely to have to worry about, since it will not come into effect until after a General Election and he is odds on to lose that. Indeed, given the speed with which some of his senior colleagues are distancing themselves from him, it seems that he is the only one who believes Labour stands any chance in the next election.

No matter which party is in power, the bills will have to be paid and the UK has been racking up record debts over the past year and will do for several years to come. Of course there is always waste in public spending, but the level of debt facing the country is so huge that normal efficiencies will not come anywhere near meeting it. On top of tax rises the public is going to notice quite severe cuts in public spending right across the board.

And Northern Ireland will not escape the pain. It is particularly vulnerable since it is dependent on the bloc grant from Westminster and has no tax raising authority of its own.

Given the size of the public sector here and the dependence on the local economy on public spending, the politicians at Stormont face an unenviable task in carving up a diminishing cake.

Already Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has identified savings of £370m that need to be made to balance the books and has asked the various departments to examine their budgets to see where savings can be found. There is no doubt that Northern Ireland is over-governed with an Executive, Assembly and raft of district councils for a population not much over 1.6m people.

The nature of the Executive with its four main partners means that there is often party political bickering rather than mature consensus government. This has led many people to question the effectiveness of the power-sharing administration in tackling difficult issues such as education, policing, justice or housing. In the months and years ahead the politicians will have to put their petty jealousies behind them and work out agreed solutions to the economic problems facing them or have solutions imposed from outside.

From the public's point of view, however, the bottom line is there must be a full and frank public debate in Northern Ireland about spending cuts. This is no time for backroom carve-ups that exclude the taxpayer.

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