Belfast Telegraph

'Startlingly bleak' report warns Northern Ireland public services face deep cuts

By Allan Preston

Northern Ireland's public services face a bleak future, according to a budget forecast from senior civil servants.

In an unusual move the Department of Finance published a briefing paper yesterday on Northern Ireland's financial outlook for 2018-20.

Hugh Widdis, the Department of Finance permanent secretary, listed three possible scenarios in which health and education spending was ring-fenced. They are:

  • Most departments sustaining a 4% cut for 2018/19 and 8% for 2019/20.
  • Raising extra revenue through increased rates and/or tuition fees, ending universal free prescriptions and raising the age for free public transport.
  • Deeper cuts for non-protected departments - 7% in 2018/19 and 12% in 2019/20.

Mr Widdis said he was publishing the choices "with great reluctance".

The Department of Health warned that none of the scenarios would free up enough money to enable it to maintain services at current levels.

Unless Stormont ministers return in the new year, Secretary of State James Brokenshire will have to impose an annual budget from Westminster. That would reflect his own policy decisions and be seen as a step towards direct rule.

Ulster Unionist finance spokesperson Steve Aiken MLA said the report painted a "startlingly bleak" picture.

"This budgetary outlook demonstrates how Sinn Fein and the DUP singularly failed to take the decisions needed for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland in their previous terms in the Executive," he said.

"Last year's budget wasn't presented and didn't face the scrutiny of the Assembly or Committees.

"The Secretary of State had to move to bring forward a budget and without an Executive in place to change policy, we continue with the same spending patterns."

Accusing Sinn Fein of "abdicating their responsibilities" in holding up an Executive, Mr Aiken called on the Secretary of State to enable "a coalition of the willing" to get on with the job.

SDLP finance spokesperson Claire Hanna said "at first glance, the paper makes for very grim reading".

"The options presented in the paper show the scale of the challenge for any incoming government, but just because there are challenges does not mean that parties should be able to sit government out," she added.

Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said the report demonstrated "political failures and missed opportunities" after nearly a year of political vacuum.

"In all scenarios set out by the NI Civil Service, we will see across the board cuts that will have a deep impact on public services and our ability to invest in transforming our economy," he commented.

Mr Farry warned a last-minute budget next year would do nothing to help the proper planning of public services.

Alison Millar, general secretary of the Nipsa trade union, said publishing the paper just before Christmas was a "cynical move" giving little chance for public debate.

"Nipsa do not accept that this is a briefing and that it is necessary to have this responded to by January 26, 2017," she said.

With the "devil in the detail", she demanded a full public consultation on the measures.

There was further concern from Northern Ireland's business and construction sectors.

Angela McGowan, director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in Northern Ireland, said "tough choices" would have to be made with a reduction in the Northern Ireland block grant and increased pressure on Stormont departments.

Ms McGowan added: "It should be noted that there is a very real fear among the business community that if Northern Ireland continues to respond to our healthcare crisis by diverting funds from all other areas into health, then there will be no public money left to support the wider economy."

John Armstrong, director of the Construction Employers Federation, said his sector could not afford uncertainty.

"Neither the construction industry, nor the Government Clients, can afford to be in a position in March, never mind once the financial year has actually started, of still not having a legislatively approved budget," he said.

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