A budgetary soft landing?

13 November 2017 - by Matthew Coyle

A great many eyes will be on Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire MP as he presents Northern Ireland’s 2017-2018 budget in parliament this afternoon.

The details of the UK government’s fiscal plans for Northern Ireland, necessitated – in spite of multiple rounds of talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin – by the ongoing absence of an Executive in Belfast, have now been published by the Department of Finance.

The budget awards see an injection of money in health to the tune of 5.4 per cent. In addition, the Department of Education will see its funding go up by 1.5 per cent compared to last year, in spite of indicative figures from earlier in 2017 that showed cuts in that area. The agriculture and environment budget, meanwhile, has been reduced by 3 per cent. Justice spending has fallen too, by 0.4 per cent.

Economists usually estimate that health service financing needs to rise by an annual rate of between 3 per cent and 5 per cent to match levels of demand.

The Department of Finance has cautioned that the budget is not fully comparable to its 2016-2017 iteration due to timing differences – that was published before the start of the financial year while this statement comes mid-year and includes in-year reallocations.

Overall, the day-to-day allocation is up by 3.2 per cent (£330 million) on last year, though such gains are offset by inflation.

The budget does not include any of the £1bn stemming from the ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement that the DUP signed with the Conservatives in June. Those funds will be released separately.

In response to the release of the budget document, Sinn Féin’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill MLA, said: “The British Secretary of State will today move to introduce a budget to finance public services here. This is an acknowledgement by the British Government that agreement has not been possible.”

She added “Since March of this year Sinn Féin has been seeking agreement on the implementation of outstanding commitments as a basis for restoring public trust and confidence in the institutions.”

Ms O’Neill confirmed that the party had “sought urgent meetings with both the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister” to settle on a way forward and “honour outstanding commitments, and to deliver rights enjoyed by everyone else on these islands to people here.”

Questions that arise now that the budget is due to be implemented include the extent to which the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee scrutinise Mr Brokenshire’s proposals. What big policy items will make it into the Secretary of State’s speech or questions from MPs? With victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse represented at Westminster today, will reference be made to interim payments for those affected?

On that topic, SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly cited Sir Anthony Hart’s report and recommendations on such abuse. “That report was delivered to the First and deputy First Ministers 311 days ago. Victims and survivors of institutional abuse have waited for decades for recognition of the wrongs that were committed against them. We cannot continue to torture these people by denying them recognition, an apology and appropriate compensation.”

The failure to restore the Assembly and Executive, she said, “has perpetuated that pain of victims. It’s clear that their struggle is not a political priority for some. The Hart recommendations should be implemented in full by a devolved government. We cannot force victims to wait longer.”

Following a meeting with representatives today, the UUP’s Lord Empey stated: “My heart goes out to this delegation as they have been forced to endure the years of neglect of their claims of abuse and when at last they were granted an inquiry which has reported to the Executive, the Stormont institution is no longer there to implement the recommendations of the inquiry, which all parties have accepted.”