MPs warned of NI budget ‘D-day’

29 Jan 18

Northern Ireland faces a budget “D-day” in early February after which making key spending decisions will be “incredibly difficult” because of the lack of an executive at Stormont, MPs have been told.

David Sterling, Norethern Ireland’s top civil servant, told the Northern Ireland affairs committee he was concerned over the lack of direction on funding for public services and infrastructure projects.

Sterling said he had warned Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley it would be a “major problem” if a budget had not been in time for the beginning of the 2018-19 financial year.

But he said Bradley had indicated she did not want to take decisions that would normally fall to the NI executive.

The committee asked Stirling whether the UK parliamentary recess in February would in fact be the “D-day” for setting the budget.

He replied: “In my view, it will be incredibly difficult for us if we don’t have budget certainty by 8 February.

“We have budget legislation for 2017-18 in place. But we will need supplementary estimates to give authority to adjustments that have been made since then, and we will also need a full account for next year.

“We need a budget for next year within which the confidence and supply of money is allocated and decisions are taken on how best it should be allocated.”

Stirling was challenged by Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley over spending of the £1bn additional funding Northern Ireland received as part of a deal between prime minister Theresa May following last year’s general election.

So far, only £20m of the money has been allocated as the Northern Ireland civil service said executive decisions need to be taken on spending on projects such as broadband infrastructure.

But Paisley said: “You’ve won the lottery – please spend the money.”

Hugh Widdis, permanent secretary of the Northern Ireland Executive Department for Finance, responded that setting an overall budget was a legal requirement.

“No department can spend money lawfully unless it has been appropriated to it properly. In order to appropriate it properly one of the things we need first is a budget,” he said.

Stirling also said that around 500 pieces of legislation will need to be re-drafted because of Brexit, and that this would require affirmative resolutions from an executive.

He said essential legislation would need to be put to the UK government if no power-sharing deal is struck at Stormont.

In November, former Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire imposed a budget of £16.17bn for 2017-18 financial year to ensure public services did not run out of money.

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