Secretary of State pins blame on Ministers as Northern Ireland Budget details revealed

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he is setting a budget to bring public finances in Northern Ireland "under control".

In a written parliamentary statement, Mr Heaton-Harris said: "The fact that ministers who remained in their posts during the six months from May to October 2022 have left NI's public finances with a black hole of some £660 million is hugely disappointing.

"I believe that if the necessary care of Northern Ireland's public finances had been taken over the last six months, the risk of overspend could have been more easily and fully mitigated.

"However we recognise the public in Northern Ireland must be protected in future by bringing the public finances under control so it is with significant regret that I am now setting a Northern Ireland budget, as the former executive failed to do so.

"I have a clear message to the parties - if they disagree with my budget, they should restore the executive to consider and revise the departmental position I have set out.

"My priority continues to be to work towards the restoration of an executive.

"Difficult decisions are ahead, and I urge parties to come together and to provide the locally accountable leadership that the people of Northern Ireland deserve."

The Stormont institutions collapsed earlier this year when the DUP withdrew support as part of its protest against the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.

Civil servants are currently controlling government departments after ministers left office at the end of October when a deadline to restore the executive passed.

Departments have been operating without proper budgets for months.

It has previously been warned that Stormont departments are on course to overspend by £660 million in the current financial year.

Mr Heaton-Harris also said action needed to be taken to protect public services in the region.

He said: "It should be noted that the Spending Review 2021 set the largest annual block grant in real terms since the Devolution Act in 1998.

"This provides around 21% more funding per head than equivalent UK Government spending in other parts of the UK.

"Yet, NI ministers have failed to protect the public finances and secure the delivery of public services.

"This is a failure of their responsibility to the public, typically those most in need, which worsens the impacts of the reductions that must now be delivered.

"If the necessary diligence over Northern Ireland's public finances had been applied by NI ministers during the last six months, these measures would not be needed now.

"Action needs to be taken now to protect the current and future health of Northern Ireland's public services."

The Secretary of State said his budget would increase public sector pay and ensure the Living Wage threshold is met.

He said: "I appreciate that these pay awards will not go as far as many workers would wish.

"Until there is the right level of income to NI departments, this position on public sector pay is the most that can be afforded within the budget available and without cutting into important frontline services.

"A future executive needs to get to grips with a sustainable approach to public sector pay alongside the work needed to transform public services.

"The executive needs to reform as this work should not be further delayed.

"Northern Ireland ministers have long failed to demonstrate prudent fiscal management.

"Almost 10 years on from the commitments made in the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements to put Northern Ireland's public finances on to a sustainable footing, long promised public service transformation and fiscal sustainability has not been delivered."

Outlining his budget allocations, Chris Heaton-Harris said there would be an increase in health spending to address critical pressures.

He said: "For health, this budget provides £7.28 billion in funding, an increase of £228 million above 2021/22 spending, which included significant Covid-19 funding, or £786 million if we compare to last year's funding excluding the one-off Covid-19 funding.

"This will protect spending to address the critical health pressures in Northern Ireland.

"It also ring-fences funding for abortion services, as ensuring availability of services is a statutory duty on me as Secretary of State."

He said there needed to be "significant reductions" in planned spending in education to meet budget totals.

He said: "For education, this budget provides £2.6 billion in funding, which is an additional £286 million on top of last year's spending (after excluding accounting for one-off Covid support in 2021-22).

"This will protect spending for programmes such as free school meals, home to school transport, the Extended Schools and Sure Start programmes, all of which support those who need it most.

"However, even this level of increase will require significant reductions in current spending trajectory levels to live within budgetary control totals.

"This will affect funding for high-spend areas such as the Education Authority's block grant and the aggregated schools budget.

"As some costs are demand driven, this will have impacts. However, these are unavoidable given the scale of the overspend risk facing the department.

"The required action to curtail expenditure must be taken by all education spending areas in order to live within budget."

Heaton-Harris said steps would have to be taken to improve the sustainability of public transport operator Translink by increasing fares.

He said: "This budget protects funding for the most vulnerable by protecting spending levels in the Department for Communities at current levels and ensuring programmes like the Discretionary Support Grant can continue.

"It also increases resources for Northern Ireland's critical infrastructure networks with a 4.4% increase in the Department for Infrastructure resource spending (after excluding one-off Covid support in 2021-22).

"This increase will sustain vital infrastructure support that is so important to the NI economy.

"We recognise steps will also need to be taken to improve Translink's sustainability through uprating Translink fares. This will help to reduce the budget pressure, whilst ensuring that the increase remains below the level of inflation.

"Elsewhere, the level of protections and increased spending afforded to health and education, with lesser increases also afforded to infrastructure and justice, means some reductions in the Department for Economy, while departments including the Executive Office and departments of Finance and Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, remain broadly at similar levels as last year."

Concluding his budget statement, Chris Heaton-Harris said: "The need for action to put Northern Ireland public finances on a sustainable footing can no longer be put off.

"Steps need to be taken now to address the systemic issues that are facing public services and address the long-term sustainability of NI's finances.

"Importantly, I remain firmly of the view that the right people to be taking such decisions for future budgets and public services are locally elected and accountable ministers sitting in a fully functioning devolved government.

"My department will continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Department of Finance ahead of the next financial year to identify what steps could be taken.

"Amongst the options we will examine will be water charges and/or increasing income from regional rates, to ensure citizens in Northern Ireland, and all taxpayers are treated fairly and the 2023/24 Budget is balanced from the outset of the year."I must repeat I am only bringing forward this budget legislation because the Northern Ireland parties have failed to display the necessary political leadership for which they were elected.

"I look forward to the executive getting back to work and taking these decisions in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland."

Mr Heaton-Harris said legislation would be brought forward in due course.

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