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Stormont in £350m cash deficit crisis

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Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast (Peter Morrison/PA)

Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast (Peter Morrison/PA)

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Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast (Peter Morrison/PA)

Stormont departments are running more than £350m short on next year's budget - despite the many millions pumped in from Westminster to combat Covid-19.

And a £55m 'cash pot' which had been designed as a cushion over Christmas has also already been all but spent.

The Executive and Assembly are awaiting the outcome of the national spending review which is expected on Wednesday.

But Finance Minister Conor Murphy's department confirmed: "Yes, the baseline for Budget 2021/22 has been reduced by more than £350m."

Central expenditure chief official Joanne McBurney explained: "If the starting point is our baseline, we are already more than £350m down on what departments would have had at the start of this year, regardless of the Covid money that came in."

And on the cash pot being retained Mr Murphy told his Assembly scrutiny committee a few weeks ago: "It is prudent to keep some money back to see how things pan out over Christmas, but it would have to be spent quickly in the new year.

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Finance Minister Conor Murphy (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye)

Finance Minister Conor Murphy (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye)

Finance Minister Conor Murphy (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye)

"These are uncertain times. Brexit is also an uncertain time and that is kicking in on December 31. It would be prudent to hold back something to see whether we need some emergency interventions in the new year."

But now his department confirmed that £25m of the pot has been earmarked for schemes to support the bus, coach and haulage industry as well as taxies, £19m of it already allocated to the Department of Infrastructure which oversees transport.

Mr Murphy told Sinn Fein's Philip McGuigan, SDLP MLA Pat Catney and independent unionist Jim Wells he was confident tourists will return.

"I think tourists will come back. This is about ensuring we have a coach industry to take them to all the attractions that we need to, otherwise they will be wandering around the docks in Belfast, and that will not be of benefit."

Former DUP Minister Mr Wells said: "Coach operators have had nothing. A good coach will cost anything between £200,000 and £300,000 and they are now having to pay the leasing charges or the repayments.

"Just to give you one shocking statistic... 121 cruise liners were booked to call into Belfast this year. One made it. That is how dire the situation is."

On top of the transport allocation, £15m is being given to sports organisations and more than £7m to local hospices.

Meanwhile, hopes of a spending review which would stretch over several years are fading.

Ms McBurney told the committee: "The Treasury was working towards a multi-year spending review. I have the feeling that Treasury was starting from scratch to develop a spending review outcome."

A spokesperson for her department added: "We will not know how much funding is available to the Executive next year until the Spending Review announcement on November 25."


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