Belfast Telegraph

Stormont officials publish briefing paper setting out tough cuts choices

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 a highly unusual step, the Department of Finance has published a briefing paper mapping out the tough choices facing departments over the coming two years.

With no ministers in office amid the powersharing crisis, civil servants have released draft scenario plans that would usually only have been circulated among politicians and officials.

They set out a number of scenarios for absorbing looming real term cuts to Stormont's resource budget - 0.9% next year and 2.3% in 2019/20 - with each department outlining how the various scenarios would impact their services.

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.

Senior civil servants, who have been running departments since the executive imploded, have conducted scenario planning in order to expedite the budget process if an executive is restored next month.

If efforts to restore powersharing again flounder, the onus will once more fall on Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire to intervene and set the 2018/19 budget.

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 said: "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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