Heaton-Harris sets Northern Ireland budget

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said he has set a budget to bring public finances in the region “under control”.

Outlining his spending plans in a written ministerial statement, Mr Heaton-Harris delivered a sharp message to Stormont parties – if they disagree with his budget, then restore the power-sharing executive.

The Stormont institutions collapsed earlier this year when the DUP withdrew support as part of its protest against the 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 said his budget would protect health services, but he warned that the current spending trajectory in education would have to be cut.

He also said fares set by public transport operator Translink would have to rise and that wide-ranging options for revenue-raising would be considered.

He said the budget would increase public sector pay but conceded it would not be by as much as many workers would wish.

“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,” he said.

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

“However, we recognize the public in Northern Ireland must be protected in the 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.

Stormont institutions collapsed earlier this year

“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.”

He continued: “For health, this budget provides £7.28bn in funding, an increase of £228m above 2021/22 spending, which included significant Covid-19 funding, or £786m 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.

“For education, this budget provides £2.6bn in funding, which is an additional £286m on top of last year’s spending (after excluding accounting for one-off Covid support in 2021/22).

“This will protect spending for programs such as free school meals, home-to-school transport, the Extended Schools and Sure Start programs, 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.”

Concluding his budget statement, Mr Heaton-Harris said the need for action to put Northern Ireland public finances on a sustainable footing could “no longer be put off”.

He said: “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.

“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.”

He said that budget legislation would be brought forward in due course.

Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy described the budget as “hugely damaging for public services”.

Criticizing the DUP boycott of Stormont, Mr Murphy said the collapse of Stormont has left departments struggling to control spending and a one-year budget set towards the end of the financial year.

“This is hugely damaging for public services, particularly the health service which desperately needs financial security,” he said.

Mr Murphy also criticized a lack of additional rates relief for businesses and questioned whether enough had been allocated to allow pay rises for public-sector workers.

“It is not clear from the British Secretary of State’s announcement what is happening with public-sector pay. I will urgently be seeking clarity on this matter,” he said.

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