Stormont budget delay could risk departments running out of cash warns minister

Health Minister Robin Swann in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings at Stormont
-Credit: (Image: Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

Delaying the passage of the Assembly budget would risk departments running out of cash, Stormont’s Finance Minister has warned.

Caoimhe Archibald was responding to calls from the Ulster Unionist Party, whose minister in the powersharing administration, Robin Swann, is to vote against the coalition’s spending plan later on Tuesday.

The UUP has argued that the budget should be delayed to factor in further funds that will be available to Stormont in the June monitoring round – part of the in-year process of reallocating returned or new money to departments.

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Outgoing Stormont Health Minister Mr Swann has warned that the budget allocation for his department will inflict “irreparable” damage on Northern Ireland’s health service.

He said his “greater responsibility to defend and protect vital services” is the reason he is breaking ministerial rules to vote against the budget.

“In voting against this budget today, I’m very conscious that I am not complying with the ministerial code,” he told the Assembly.

“I don’t do that easily, but I have a greater responsibility to defend and protect vital services, to stand up for patients and staff, to oppose cuts that I believe will cause real harm.”

He added: “The Ministerial Code requires ministers to support and to act in accordance with all decisions of the Executive Committee and the Assembly.

“I have to say I did not always see evidence of that during the pandemic, we had collective Executive decisions publicly undermined within hours and, of course, we had Executive Covid restrictions and guidelines blatantly breached by other ministers.

“On my final day of office, can I just say that it has been an honour of my political life to twice serve as Minister of Health and I am absolutely certain Mike Nesbitt will serve with similar commitment and pride.”

The health service has been allocated more than half of the Executive’s £14.5 billion resource budget.

Ministerial deliberations last month focused on £1billion of uncommitted funds. Mr Swann had bid for all that money but ultimately received just over £500million.

Mike Nesbitt -Credit:Brian Little / Press Eye.
Mike Nesbitt -Credit:Brian Little / Press Eye.

The minister is due to resign from this role on Tuesday evening in a move unrelated to the budget. His is stepping down to focus on running in the Westminster election. He is to be replaced by former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt.

Ahead of the Assembly debate on the budget, Mr Swann warned fellow Executive ministers that no UUP minister would introduce the cost-saving measures required to balance the department’s budget.

That raises the prospect of Mr Nesbitt overspending the departmental budget when he takes over the role.

Addressing the Assembly at the outset of the debate, Ms Archibald said the Executive was in line to receive “significant” extra funding from the Treasury in-year. But she said the timeline for receiving confirmation on the amount had been pushed back the General Election had been called.

“I am aware that some believe that this budget should be delayed to allow these additional allocations to be included,” she said.

"However, Assembly approval of this budget cannot be delayed.

“Not only is such an approach not permitted under Section 64 of the 1998 Act (Northern Ireland Act), it also carries real risks – risk of overspending, as departments would be delayed in taking decisions to live within allocations, and, worse still, perhaps leading to decisions being made later in the year and having harsher impact on citizens.”

Ms Archibald said if she was unable to bring the formal Budget Bill to the Assembly before the summer recess then departments may reach the limit of the cash they have been authorised to spend pending the Bill’s passage.

“I cannot contemplate a situation where departments could be unable to access cash to deliver services,” she said.

Ms Archibald also warned that a Treasury pledge to write off a £559million debt, on the condition that Stormont puts its finances on a more sustainable basis, could be withdrawn if the Executive overspent its budget.

“If a balanced budget is not agreed, the write-off of £559million provided in the financial package is potentially at risk,” she said.

“Repayment of such an amount would severely impact on our budget for 25/26. Therefore, we simply cannot delay Assembly approval.”

UUP finance spokesperson Steve Aiken said the Department of Health was taking a 2.3% reduction in the budget under discussion.

He said: “We have heard much about health being 50% of the budget, but that is the same as the rest of our nation – it has always been 50% of the budget. It is just not enough and it is not sufficient.

“Our health minister has made clear to both our constituents and our vital health workers the challenges that these substantive cuts will mean. No minister could deliver on those unless there is appropriate prioritisation, which there hasn’t been.”

Mr Aiken said the Assembly’s Finance Committee had been told that an additional £200 million, plus extra in Barnett readjustments, would be available to ministers in the June monitoring round.

He said this extra funding would “enable many of health’s challenges to be met”.

He added: “Sinn Fein, the DUP and Alliance would have you vote for a budget that could in all probability have an extra quarter of a million pounds to be allocated in less than 30 days. How can any self-respecting MLA support this budget that is coming through?”

Matthew O'Toole, SDLP
Matthew O'Toole, SDLP -Credit: Jonathan Porter // Press Eye

SDLP MLA and leader of the Opposition Matthew O’Toole said his party would also vote against the budget.

He said the plan lacked any strategic planning or prioritisation.

Mr O'Toole added: “The public didn’t expect miracles, but they did expect a plan. This budget is not a plan. It’s not enough simply to be here. It’s not enough simply to allocate money granted by the Treasury, even if I acknowledge that the money coming isn’t enough.

“It isn’t enough of a financial settlement. And austerity has had a pernicious effect on our public services. It’s not simply enough to pass on those allocations and expect to be patted on the back by the public. The public expect real prioritisation and real choices.”

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