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Assembly's key vote on Budget

By Noel McAdam

The Assembly today faces a key test of its future stability with the first formal vote on the Executives' intended Budget share-out.

Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance MLAs are expected to vote against the overall package in the 'take note' debate at Stormont.

But the session will start six weeks of hard bargaining and horse-trading across the range of government spending before the draft proposals become the final first Budget of the current DUP and Sinn Fein-dominated Executive.

That still more crucial vote is due to take place around the end of January or in early February, more than a month later than usual.

With both main parties expected to again accuse their Executive partners of playing "hokey cokey" politics, however, there was a demand for a full disclosure of departmental bids.

Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs jnr has wrote to Finance Minister Peter Robinson asking for the detailed breakdown underpinning the draft Budget headline figures.

" Given the DUP's constant control freakery, I wondered if I was going to have to make a Freedom of Information request," the East Antrim member said.

"It is absolutely rediculous that between the release of the draft budget several weeks ago and this debate in the Assembly that we have not had these detailed figures."

Mr Beggs jnr accepted, however, that many of the likely changes to the draft budget will be made in discussions at Assembly scrutiny committee meetings.

Condemning the draft budget as "neo-Thatcherite", meanwhile, SDLP North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness said the allocation to the Department of Social Development for housing was "miserly. "Does the Finance Minister not realise there is a housing crisis, and that this crisis must be addressed by giving the DSD proper funding so they can build more social and affordable housing?

"When the Executive was restored, many people assumed the end of Direct Rule would mean a more socially just approach to our problems."

Not all criticism came from the smaller parties, however. Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson argued the Executive will be judged on how it succeeds in addressing inequalities and tackling regional imbalance.

"We must lift the boats of the disadvantaged, the vulnerable in society, the marginalized and excluded, whatever community people may come from," said Ms Anderson.

"Without good housing and health, jobs or transport 'the rift tide' will continue to deny our potential, and boats, as before, will remain holed, sinking," the Foyle MLA added.

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