Approval of NI budget taken off Executive agenda six times

Finance Minister Conor Murphy

A decision on next year's budget for public services has failed to make the Stormont Executive's agenda six or seven times, the finance minister said. Time is running out and outstanding issues surround whether to borrow at historically low rates and whether the British Government will replace millions of pounds the EU traditionally pays towards priorities such as education. Conor Murphy said he was planning a "standstill" budget and blamed the First Minister for the hold up. Mr Murphy said: "Every single department is disappointed." He added: "All departments are exercised and agitated at the idea of a standstill budget. "It is not what any of us wanted." On the reason for the delay, he added: "The problem was the First Minister's side." He hoped his budget paper would be debated by ministers during an Executive meeting on Thursday and he can lay out his plans in the Assembly on Monday. Sinn Fein's finance minister said deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill had been content to allow his paper onto the Executive agenda from its first incarnation. They are now up to about version six of the paper, which is due to be discussed on Thursday, he said. Mr Murphy said the plans for the next financial year from April were "flat" in terms of spending power and there had been little appetite for major reprioritisation of sums between different departments. He told Stormont's finance committee: "In terms of the overall position for big spending departments like health and education this is going to be very, very challenging." The time allowed for consultation may be less than seven weeks, Mr Murphy added. The consultation is likely to close in February and any proposals have to get through the Assembly before the end of March, his officials told the committee. Mr Murphy said he had been engaging with the Treasury around British Government commitments to replace all lost EU funding. A total of £45 million is due to the Economy Department. Mr Murphy said: "That is a big problem for the department, it is a big problem for society and all who were able to avail of spending." He said the EU money traditionally provided for international study programmes such as Erasmus and the European Social Fund which improves employment and education opportunities. The minister added: "We have not got that certainty yet from the Treasury at this moment. "If we can get that between now and the final budget paper then that would be helpful." Debate has also surrounded what exactly any borrowed money would be used for. Mr Murphy said the number of meetings of the Executive had increased dramatically over recent years and ministers were gathering up to three times a week during the pandemic compared to fortnightly some years ago. He said: "I want to give Executive colleagues an opportunity to have their input into it."