Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: Rates, rent, and university fees to increase under civil service budget plans

Stormont officials have laid out the bleak financial position facing public services in Northern Ireland ahead of a major budgetary tipping point for the rudderless administration.

In an unprecedented move civil servants have worked out three scenarios for balancing the decreasing Northern Ireland budget. They include a number of proposals for consideration for either an Executive, should there be one formed or for Secretary of State James Brokenshire.

Departments, excluding health and eduction, would see cuts of between 4% and 12%. Although health officials have said they need more money and reform in order to provide the same level of service.

Among the plans are options to increase government income. Such proposals include a hike in domestic rates, upping university tuition fees, scrapping free prescriptions, increasing the age for free public transport and making civil servants pay for their car parking.

They also consider charging for domiciliary care and day care, increasing Housing Executive rents, parking fees at hospitals and ending free-school transport.

Stormont is still without an agreed budget for the coming financial year and one needs to be struck by early February, at the latest, in order to implement it ahead of April.

Department of Finance permanent secretary Hugh Widdis said: "This is an unusual step which is being taken with great reluctance.

"In normal circumstances, the Minister of Finance would have presented a Draft Budget to the Executive for agreement and later approval, after debate, by the Assembly.

"This year, in the absence of ministers, the Department of Finance is now taking the unusual step of publishing information about the broad choices available for balancing the Budget to help inform decisions to be taken by an incoming Executive."

The three illustrative scenarios set out in the paper envisage full ring-fencing of health and education spending, with protections for welfare mitigation measures and a proportion of the police budget.

Scenario one would see the majority of departments sustaining a 4% cut next year and an 8% cut in 2019/20.

Scenario two proposes offsetting a proportion of those cuts by raising additional revenue through policies such as increasing the regional rate and/or tuition fees, ending universal free prescriptions, and raising the age for accessing free public transport.

Scenario three envisages fewer revenue raising steps and deeper cuts for non-protected departments - 7% in 2018/19 and 12% in 19/20.

Demonstrating the scale of the financial problems facing Stormont, the Department of Health said none of the scenarios would free up enough money to enable it to maintain services at current levels.

Mr Widdis added: "Budgets for 2018/19 and 2019/20 will need to take account of constrained financial resources and growing departmental pressures.

"The briefing paper sets out the assessment of the resources available and approaches that would enable departments to live within them.

"No decisions have been taken. It will be for ministers to decide on the way forward, which will be informed by this process."

The paper will give local parties advance warning of the financial picture they face if they do return to power in the New Year. If they do not, Mr Brokenshire faces another tough decision in February.

While he stepped in to introduce the long-delayed 2017/18 budget in Westminster last month, doing so for the coming financial year's spending plan would represent a much bigger stride toward direct rule.

This year's budget essentially followed the trajectory already set by local ministers before Stormont went belly up. If Mr Brokenshire was to act on the 2018/19 Budget he would be making his own policy decisions on how to allocate the money.

The Department of Finance has invited the public to give feedback on the budget planning document.

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