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First Ministers rap 'desperate' Nesbitt in £20m bailout row

By Noel McAdam

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness have accused Mike Nesbitt of "playing fast and loose" with the Assembly and Executive.

The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister said comments by the Ulster Unionist leader "smacked of sheer desperation" and criticised him for a "lack of understanding" of Stormont procedures and standards.

Their joint attack came after Mr Nesbitt challenged a £20m cash injection for OFMDFM as an "effective overdraft" and asked what the money was for.

Finance Minister Mervyn Storey approved the withdrawal from the consolidated fund - effectively Stormont's bank account.

Mr Nesbitt, who chairs the Assembly committee monitoring OFMDFM, said the cash advance was intriguing, because it was the last department in the Executive that should be seeking more money.

"This is the same OFMDFM which has proved itself incapable of spending £80m to alleviate poverty via the Social Investment Fund, which was unable to spend the millions it had allocated to childcare and which failed miserably to redevelop the Maze site," he said.

"I sincerely hope it is just a coincidence that they are asking for a £20m overdraft as we approach an election. In the absence of an explanation, people will inevitably draw their own conclusions."

However, OFMDFM insisted the transaction was within normal procedures and that Mr Storey had made it clear it was not a budget increase.

"This was a cashflow issue relating to £5.5m that arose partly due to the timing of payments from OFMDFM to their arm's-length bodies and voluntary and community organisations," an initial statement read.

"The remainder of the requirement - £14.5m - stems from capital payments where the Strategic Investment Board acted as a conduit to pass on funding on behalf of another department."

But Mr Nesbitt hit back saying: "The point is OFMDFM enjoys the luxury of the ultimate ATM in the shape of the Department of Finance when they cannot manage their cashflow, but the community and voluntary groups whose survival is dependent on OFMDFM have no such comfort when the department delays the release of their funding."

He claimed that a common complaint when his committee investigated the shared future strategy, Together: Building A United Community, was that OFMDFM "failed to release monies in a timely manner".

"These groups will note how ill-divided the world is when the department can tap the Finance Department for a £20m loan at the drop of a hat," he added.

In a second statement, OFMDFM said: "Mike Nesbitt's comments smack of sheer desperation from someone who has played fast and loose with the local institutions.

"His comments display a lack of understanding of the financial procedures and standards all departments must adhere to."

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