Belfast Telegraph

Simon Hamilton: Welfare reform madness will cost us millions we just haven't got

DUP Finance Minister gives his take on the political row over welfare

By Simon Hamilton

The failure of Sinn Fein to stand by its word and live up to the Stormont House and Castle Agreements could have a profound impact upon Northern Ireland's Budget.

The impasse over welfare reform had placed Northern Ireland's public finances in a perilous state. Prior to reaching agreement at Stormont House, many were rightly predicting that the parties would be unable to set a Budget for next year and that Stormont would collapse as a consequence. As I said myself at the time, no money means no government. The Stormont House and Stormont Castle Agreements changed all that.

The Budget for 2015/16 was built upon the foundation of the £2bn financial package that HM Government put in place after the parties agreed the deal before Christmas. A way forward on welfare reform was key to that.

I've already publicly spoken about my fears that corporation tax powers which were also contingent on welfare reform legislation passing at Stormont could be lost. But I'm just as concerned about the future sustainability of our Budget.

Everyone understands that the Budget for next year was a challenging one with the effects of austerity emanating from London really beginning to affect our public finances.

But it was a Budget where we were still able to support key public services like health and education, underpin economic growth and reform the public sector in large part because of the flexibilities and access to finances that the Stormont House Agreement permitted.

With the Stormont House Agreement now effectively scuppered by Sinn Fein all of those flexibilities and funds granted by the Government are in serious doubt.

The consequences could be catastrophic. We could lose access to £200m in loans to fund a voluntary exit scheme which has already received close to 4,000 expressions of interest from civil servants.

That would deny departments' savings in next year alone of around £25m and the broader public sector of a further £25m.

Savings were estimated to increase to approximately £500m as the entire voluntary exit scheme and other measures rolled out across the public sector. Those savings too would be gone.

Our ability to repay our loan from the Government in 2014/15 which helped us live within our means from capital receipts could be lost placing a £100m pressure on our resource budget. In short, next year's budget could now be plunged into crisis.

We could be close to £500m on short of what we need to make the books balance in 2015/16. How does Sinn Fein believe that we could deal with a Budget black hole like that?

Do they want to take the axe to services like schools and hospitals to pay for their folly?

What was already a finely balanced Budget made possible in large part by the Stormont House Agreement's financial package is now teetering on the brink of collapse.

We have a Budget in place but flexibilities and finances that make it possible may no longer be in place. We are effectively, therefore, back to square one with our Budget if Sinn Fein fails to see sense.

I will be working with counterparts in HM Treasury to ascertain the precise impact of Sinn Fein's madness on Northern Ireland's Budget but the best way forward is for Sinn Fein to stick to its word and implement the Stormont House and Stormont Castle Agreements.

Read more:

Key papers were withheld from us and figures deliberately inflated 

Failure to resolve welfare reform row 'will leave £500m Budget black hole' 

We should all learn to live within our means

Reduced public transport, broken street lights, longer hospital waiting lists, the reality is we are all going to suffer unless we sort this mess 

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