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Finance expected to dominate Stormont proceedings

By Noel McAdam

With agreement on how to disperse departmental cash left unspent facing Stormont ministers within weeks, followed by a much more comprehensive deal on a full Budget, finance and the lack of it is expected to dominate Assembly proceedings.

And against an increasingly challenging budgetary backdrop, Ministers and MLAs are also left coping with the widespread public perception of stand-off and inertia.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton admitted: "There is a fundamental need to successfully conclude the two remaining in-year monitoring rounds and for the Executive to agree a Budget position for the 2015-16 financial year by early January 2015.

"This must be achieved against the backdrop of an extremely difficult public expenditure environment, which looks set to deteriorate further as the penalties for inaction on welfare reform continue to escalate."

The DUP appears geared towards attempting a full-scale pincer movement on Sinn Fein on welfare reform, with £78m of cuts to stave off the loss to the province's Block Grant from the failure to implement welfare reform and a further £87m agreed in principle next month, according to Mr Hamilton.

The £165m total, on top of £13m siphoned off earlier in the year, is the amount the Treasury calculates would have been saved had the benefits system changes got under way in the province.

Now the Ulster Unionist Party has called for the Welfare Bill to be brought back into the Assembly – though Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland needs Executive agreement before it can move onto the 'consideration stage'.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: "The Welfare Bill needs brought to the floor of the Assembly so that the legislation can be shaped to suit Northern Ireland.

"The responsibility for that lies squarely at the feet of the DUP and Sinn Fein. It isn't going to go away.

"We need to see past the smoke and mirrors generated behind the doors at OFMDFM and for them to give some leadership.

"We have the Health Minister saying that he needs £160m extra, now he says that the Health Service can get by on £80m."

"There needs to be a more realistic debate around finance."

Sinn Fein's Catriona Ruane said, however: "The British government has already stripped billions of pounds from public services and this obviously has a growing impact right across the board. When the British Government cut £4bn from the block grant, Sinn Fein argued that we look for alternative funding so we will continue to campaign for fiscal powers to be transferred to the North."

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