Northern Ireland

Rates rise warning over NI budget pressures

Cash Image copyright Bernhard Richter
Image caption The briefing paper outlines three scenarios for Northern Ireland's future budget

Incoming ministers at Stormont could have to make deep cuts to some departments, an official briefing paper has warned.

The Department of Finance has laid out three scenarios as part of a budget preparation exercise.

Under all scenarios, health and education budgets would remain protected.

However, that would see other departments having to make cuts of between 4% and 12%.

One scenario also examines the possibility of raising revenues through measures such as increasing domestic and business rates - the property tax paid by households and most businesses.

A 10% increase in rates is among the options looked at in the briefing paper.

Other revenue-raising options include charging all civil servants for parking at work, means testing for domiciliary care and increasing university fees.

In its response to the paper, the Department of Health has warned that none of the budget scenarios "provide sufficient funding to maintain existing services".

It adds that it needs to implement "an ambitious transformation agenda" and that it would be "potentially catastrophic" to divert transformation funding into other areas.

Image caption Máirtín Ó Muilleoir believes the paper shows the 'Tory austerity agenda continues unabated'

The Department for Infrastructure has warned that, in a scenario where its budget is cut by more than 8%, all street lights, with the exception of those on motorways and strategic trunk roads, would have to be switched off.

The Department of Justice says that potential cuts for its budget would mean "significant staff reduction" across the police and prison services.

An incoming finance minister or direct rule minister from Westminster would not be bound to follow any of the scenarios.

However, they would still have to deal with the same budget constraints.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Steve Aiken, Ulster Unionist MLA, said Sinn Féin and the DUP have to foot the responsibility for the budgetary forecast

The amount of money coming to Northern Ireland for day-to-day spending will fall in 2018/19 and 2019/20.

Sinn Féin MLA Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said: "The paper clearly shows that Tory austerity, which has already taken over a billion pounds out of our public services is set, as we have warned, to continue unabated.

"Shamefully, the DUP has signed up to this Tory austerity agenda."

DUP MP Sammy Wilson hit out at the former finance minister.

"Many of the scenarios put forward will have been the same as were placed before Máirtín Ó Muilleoir a year ago," he said.

"It was clear for many of us to see that the then finance minister was simply incapable of doing the one main job he was tasked with, that of bringing forward a budget.

"However, taking tough decisions proved too much for him and he and his colleagues were happier to walk away instead."

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said: "This budgetary outlook demonstrates how Sinn Féin and the DUP singularly failed to take the decisions needed for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland in their previous terms in the Executive."

Northern Ireland's budget for 2017/2018 passed through Westminster in November.

Stormont has been without a power-sharing government since the start of 2017, leading to Westminster stepping in to set a budget.

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