Stormont ministers’ resource bids ‘three times higher than funding available in budget’

Resource bids from Stormont ministers for money to alleviate pressures on public services in Northern Ireland amount to more than three times the funding available to Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald in the forthcoming budget. Stormont’s Finance Committee was told Ms Archibald has received bids totalling £3.2billion for funding from her resource budget, but has only £1 billion to allocate once previously earmarked funding is taken into account. First Minister Michelle O’Neill has predicted that no ministers will be happy when the budget is set later this month, while deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly said difficult decisions would have to be made.

The Stormont powersharing Executive was restored in February. The UK Government agreed a £3.3 billion package to support the return of devolution. The new Executive agreed a short delay in setting a budget for 2024/25 while ministers got to grip with their departmental priorities. Ms Archibald has been meeting with ministers ahead of introducing a final budget paper to the Executive. The budget is expected to be brought to the Assembly before the end of April. Demand on the budget far outstrips the funding available.

In the resource budget, Ms Archibald has £1billion to allocate once previously earmarked funding is provided. Her department has received funding bids from ministers totalling £3.2 billion. From her capital budget, there is £1.8billion of funding available for allocation against bids totalling £2.8billion. The budget introduced by Ms Archibald will cover only the 2024/25 financial year. The Finance Minister cannot currently legally introduce a multi-year budget as this is the last year of a Treasury spending review period. The Department of Finance’s director of public spending Joanne McBurney updated MLAs on the Finance Committee on the budget situation on Wednesday afternoon. She said: “The demands on our budget, as you will imagine, far outstrip the funding we have available. Many times over, in fact.” Committee chairman Matthew O’Toole said: “It is a difficult picture indeed.” Speaking in Belfast, Ms O’Neill said the budget would have to be set in the coming days. She said: “It is going to be a very, very difficult budget and there will be nobody happy around the Executive table because of the limitations that we have. “That is why we have to widen this debate around finances and how we are funded. “We need a properly funded model which allows us to do good public services. “But we also need to widen the debate around fiscal levers. What other powers do we have as an Executive to allow us to deliver better public services?” She added: “For this year we are going to have to set a budget, that is going to be far from ideal because what we want is a multi-year budget, we want a properly funded budget and we don’t have that.”

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly said the budget was one of a number of key issues the Executive is currently working on. She said: “It was a source of frustration for me that the fiscal arrangements, the budget that was set for Northern Ireland, was woefully inadequate. “There were many who promised when Stormont was back they could fix all of these issues and do all of these fantastic things but we knew, I knew, that the budget was not there. “The DUP led this campaign in highlighting this fact that the budget was not there to do anything new, in fact the budget was inadequate to do what we needed to do to stay at the level that we were at.” Ms Little-Pengelly added: “The budget over this year and the next number of years is incredibly tight and that will mean very hard and difficult decisions. “This budget will do what it can do to support the departments, particularly our public services, but we also are appealing to the UK Government that we do need that support if we are going to do transformation as well as securing and maintaining our public services. “We need that financial investment in Northern Ireland.”

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