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John Simpson

Spotlight falls on Finance Minister Conor Murphy as Budget looms

John Simpson


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Finance Minister Conor Murphy

Finance Minister Conor Murphy

Finance Minister Conor Murphy

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has the opportunity now to show people the full picture of the difficult questions he must tackle as he manages the process of balancing the Northern Ireland Budget.

For four years and for reasons that are far from convincing, NI has not been shown, in full documents, the changing budgetary position.

In the years when there was no Executive Minister, the Department of Finance published only selected parts of the mainly headline departmental spending plans without setting out the wider context.

The unhelpful attitude of the Department of Finance has attracted only limited criticism. With the restoration of devolved Government, the case for restoring more openness on public finances must now be made.

Mr Murphy will make a useful contribution to the debate about how the Executive manages public sector finances here if he asks his civil servants to prepare a budget document that is comprehensive and useful to aid wider public understanding of the trends, the relative priorities and the reliance on financial support from the Treasury over and above local taxation and local borrowing.

The full budget statement should show how public sector spending has changed, year on year, in recent years.

These annual figures should show how spending was allocated, separating current and capital spending, and after correcting for inflation whether real values of spending have been increasing or decreasing.

To ensure the budget statement is comprehensive, the minister must ask his officials to include not just the recurrent spending within the delegated expenditure limits (the DEL classification) but also the large spending falling within the category known as annual managed expenditure (AME).

Slightly more ambitiously, Mr Murphy should ask for a sensible presentation on the main features of the NI public sector revenue including the Barnet block grant (showing the part of the Barnet allocation that can be attributed to taxation to be collected in NI).

In addition the sources of capital, whether as borrowing or financial transactions capital, should be disclosed.

Of particular importance for the 2020-21 Budget, there should be information on new sources of funding whether one-off for 2020-21 or recurring in later years.

This would be a critical piece of information on the impact of the extra £1bn promised as part of the new agenda along with the Barnet consequentials of the UK budget which may be expected to amount to a major sum (possibly in excess of £1bn on a recurring basis).

A new source of devolved funding across the UK will come in the form of the Shared Prosperity Fund.

This has been anticipated by the Treasury as a replacement for the EU Regional Development Fund and Social Fund.

The scale and distribution of this fund has not yet been announced and there would be no surprise if it became a feature of the UK Budget as part of the "levelling up" principle which is now the accepted thrust of UK policy.

When (and if) full details of the NI Budget are available, the prospect is that some of the early budget scare stories will prove to be overstated.

However, the Treasury seems prepared to allocate the block grant using the already published statements leaving a potential shortfall for the Executive.

At that point an untested feature of the new arrangements can come into play.

The Treasury, possibly without the support of Mr Murphy, is ready to launch the work of the Fiscal Council, operating between governments in London and Belfast.

The Fiscal Council is expected to challenge the way in which Stormont has used a reasonably generous budget settlement without giving priority to some of the major pieces of expenditure now on the Executive shopping list.

Mr Murphy has the opportunity to defend the allocations made by Stormont within the devolution framework.

Northern Ireland has not been as tightly squeezed as is often claimed.

Company report: Ulster Bank

The Ulster Bank faced a difficult trading outcome in 2019, linked to increased costs and reduced levels of lending to customers.

The ratio of costs to income increased. The bank has total assets of £11.2bn.

In June 2019, the Royal Bank of Scotland (parent company of the Ulster Bank) decided to transfer the Ulster Bank business into its immediate parent, NatWest Bank.

As a consequence the Ulster Bank brand in Northern Ireland becomes a trading name for NatWest Bank which will simplify the structure of the RBS Group whilst also ensuring continuity of service under the Ulster Bank brand.

A number of additional expenses in 2019 resulted in a fall in operating profits.

Staff costs rose by slightly less than inflation but other administrative expenses rose by £22m.

A charge of £10m was attributed to refunds and project costs linked to a change in the interest rates charged on various lending products.

Investments in improved technology and impairment in the value the bank’s property at Danesfort, associated with relocation in Belfast city centre, created a charge of £6m.

Impairment charges on commercial lending rose to £18m, compared to £6m in 2018.

This was attributed to deterioration in the probability of default on lending as well as an increased charge related to economic uncertainty.

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