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Stormont faces its biggest spending crisis... yet it wasn't even on the Executive's agenda to discuss

£200m cuts must be found but ministers do nothing

By Noel McAdam

Stormont ministers were yesterday faced with the biggest spending crisis in living memory – and they did nothing.

The current budget crisis which is costing Northern Ireland £1m every working day failed to even make it onto the agenda for the 'Black Thursday' Executive meeting, after it was blocked by Sinn Fein.

Instead ministers discussed the £200m of cuts which they need to find to stop the Treasury taking control of spending under 'Any Other Business'.

With no decision made, the cuts cannot now be discussed again until the next Executive meeting in a fortnight – costing the country another £10m.

The growing sense of crisis was underlined when Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams told a US audience that his party was prepared to let the institutions fall before they would agree to cuts caused by the welfare stalemate.

As the Belfast Telegraph revealed earlier this week, the Executive has been warned it must save £200m in the current financial year.

Otherwise ministers will begin to breach their departmental spending limits, risking a formal intervention by the Treasury.

Apart from the almost £90m they have already agreed 'in principle' to pay for cuts to the Block Grant over the failure to implement welfare reforms, there are more than £100m of other pressures.

At yesterday's Executive meeting Alliance ministers David Ford and Stephen Farry proposed the ministers return after a break last night to deal with the blocked budget and stalemate over the introduction of welfare reform.

And they also suggested the Executive could regroup today for an extra session, but there was no support from other parties, Mr Ford said.

Proposals for a special 'away day' to tackle the mounting problems also appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

If – as at present – the health budget continues to remain 'ringfenced' that could mean a 6% cut in the budgets of all the other 11 departments, including Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's office.

And new Health Minister Jim Wells has already been promised an additional £60m on top of the £20m his department received in the last monitoring round to offset an estimated £120m shortfall.

A massive programme to reduce the numbers of civil servants is already under way but is unlikely to produce the savings necessary inside the time limit – particularly given that redundancy payments are likely to increase Stormont debt in the short term.

Mr Farry warned that every day that passes makes it more difficult to achieve savings within the relatively short timescale in government terms.

"Every day we delay in terms of the Executive having a clear plan to deal with the in-year pressures is in effect costing the people of Northern Ireland a million pounds per day," the Employment and Learning Minister added.

Justice Minister Mr Ford said: "It is a complete betrayal of the responsibilities that people were given.

"There is absolutely no doubt that civil servants with responsibilities as accounting officers across all departments will be starting to face a very difficult position as they look to what they know will be unsustainable budgets if action is not taken."

Ulster Unionist Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy confirmed there had been general rather than a formal discussion.

"It is important that we get around the table urgently and look at all of the issues and do what is right for the people of Northern Ireland," he added.

What happens next?

  •  If the Executive cannot agree cuts, ministers risk busting their departmental budgets
  •  Civil service accounting officers would stop signing cheques
  • Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance could step in to set an emergency budget
  •  Cuts are likely to include a redundancy package for civil servants

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