Belfast Telegraph

Wilson hails the reduction in Stormont 'underspends'

By Noel McAdam

Stormont departments are managing their money more successfully, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has revealed.

Ahead of today's Executive meeting, when details of the First Minister and deputy First Ministers' discussions with David Cameron are expected to be discussed, the finance chief said Ministers are losing less money back to the Treasury from departmental 'underspends'.

In the last year of Direct Rule, almost £380m allocated across the 11 government departments here was left unspent - a total of 4.4% of the budget.

But now less than 1% overall (0.7%) is still being left 'underspent', new figures have confirmed.

Mr Wilson said the achievement had allowed the construction of major projects such as the new Foyle and Londonderry College, redevelopment of the Ulster Hospital, construction of the A20 southern distributor road in Newtownards and over £153m funding for new-build housing.

The DUP Minister said the figures confirmed total investment in public services of almost £11bn in 2009-10, an increase of 8.6% on the previous year.

"This has been achieved despite the increasingly difficult economic climate in which we have been operating and represents the highest ever investment levels achieved locally," he said.

"This figure included an increased spend of 16.3% in current expenditure for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, reflecting the Executive's commitment to front line services."

Mr Wilson also emphasised, however: "There are, of course, challenging times ahead, and the Executive must continue to work together to deliver against the plans set out in the budget and the Programme for Government."

His comments came however, as the deputy chairman of the Assembly's Finance and Personnel Committee, David McNarry, warned the scope of the cuts being contemplated by the new Government "is far greater than anything we have anticipated up to now".

"It is, in effect, a form of zero-based budgeting. When you zero-base what you do is establish what you are doing and then calculate the number of staff you need to deliver it," he said.

"You then match this to the number you have got and dispense with the surplus.

"I fear the scale of redundancies this will mean and I am particularly concerned for Northern Ireland which has such a high dependency on the public sector," the Ulster Unionist MLA, whose party had an electoral pact with the Conservatives for the General Election, added.

"This could mean, at best, that many activities currently being performed by the civil service will be farmed out to private enterprise and only core staffing retained at government departmental headquarters to set policy frameworks with arm's length agencies contracted to deliver the services. It would be a sweeping way to shift employment from the public to the private sector.

"That is why I am concerned by the slow reactions of our Executive and Government here.

"That is why I am concerned that it takes forever for them to make decisions.

"We really need to sharpen up our act in Stormont because it is only Stormont that stands between the people here and the impact of the cuts the new Government is contemplating."