Belfast Telegraph

Stormont Executive's budget is like a dog walking on hind legs - not done well, but surprising it's done at all...

By Mark Brotherston

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the Stormont Executive’s agreeing a budget is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.  As usual, it took a crisis to get our ministers to take some difficult decisions.

Unfortunately, this approach to government does not lend itself to careful planning or building a successful economy.  Northern Ireland now has some figures to make the books balance, but there’s been little thought about using the budget to create private sector jobs or save money without affecting front-line services.

The Department of Health’s funding has been protected and increased, but the minister, Jim Wells, still says he has to cut services in order to make the money go around.  Yet, if you take the difference in population into account, the NHS in Northern Ireland has 42% more non-medical staff than the NHS in England.  We also already spend £75 more, per head of population, on healthcare.

These statistics don’t stack up, but successive health ministers have called for more cash, rather than doing the hard work of streamlining the organisation and making it more efficient.

Similarly, as soon as the Department of Regional Development was asked to save money, private contractors who were fixing street-lights and clearing gullies stopped being used.  Once again, the first option was to hit public services first, rather than cut waste or investigate whether the same services could be provided for cheaper.

The same pattern is repeated right across Stormont departments and, as ministers struggle to deal with a 1.6% reduction to their budget, it is likely to become more pronounced.  Ironically, this is the same Executive which is supposed to be committed to rebalancing the economy toward the private sector.

It is absolutely crazy to continue cutting front-line services, in order to protect the public sector from reform.  It’s also ridiculous preventing health professionals from delivering the best possible care, simply because the NHS is burdened with an expensive and ineffective bureaucracy.

The Executive has struck a budget at the last possible moment, but will it avoid its next crisis, by finally planning for the long-term, targeting waste and prioritising front-line services?    

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