Officials set out bleak spending scenarios for Stormont

In the absence of an executive, responsibility for setting a budget will fall to James Brokenshire. Picture by Mal McCann

CIVIL servants have warned that some Stormont departments are potentially facing cuts of up to 12 per cent next year.

In a move the Department of Finance's (DoF) permanent secretary acknowledged was "unusual" and carried out with "reluctance", officials have mapped out three budget scenarios over the coming years.

It comes against a backdrop of rolling reductions in real terms of the money earmarked for Northern Ireland by Whitehall.

According to officials, the paper exercise is "purely illustrative" and its purpose is to show the options that may need to be considered by ministers.

They insist the figures are not proposed budget settlements and that no decisions on spending have been taken.

However, the DoF warns that for an "effective budget" to be set and delivered by a new executive, it would need be agreed in early February.

With no devolved ministers in place, setting the regional budget is the responsibility of Secretary of State James Brokenshire or a future direct rule finance minister.

In all three models covered in the department's briefing paper, allocations to health and education are protected - but that could signal deep cuts elsewhere.

In the first scenario, the majority of departments would see their spending cut by four per cent in 2018-19 and eight per cent the following year.

Scenario two proposes offsetting some budget cuts through revenue raising, such as increasing the regional rate and/or tuition fees, ending universal free prescriptions, and raising the age for accessing free public transport.

Scenario three envisages fewer steps to raise money but deeper cuts for non-protected departments – seven per cent in the next financial year and 12 per cent in 2019-20.

DoF permanent secretary Hugh Widdis said any spending plans would "need to take account of constrained financial resources and growing departmental pressures".

"This year, in the absence of ministers, the Department of Finance is now taking the unusual step of publishing information about the broad choices available for balancing the budget to help inform decisions to be taken by an incoming executive," he said.

The department is seeking feedback on its exercise by January 26.

Former Sinn Féin finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said his party would oppose "any cuts that impact on our public services and communities".

"These are cuts being imposed by the Tories and supported by the DUP but I do not believe they are justifiable or acceptable," he said.

SDLP finance spokeswoman Claire Hanna said the paper made "very grim reading".

“The options presented show the scale of the challenge for any incoming government, but just because there are challenges does not mean that parties should be able to sit government out," she said.

"There are hard decisions to be made, that’s reality and any responsible political party must be prepared to face reality."

Ulster Unionist finance spokesman Steve Aiken the budgetary outlook highlighted how the lack of an executive was "increasing pressure" on public services.

"When you look at the three scenarios outlined in the document and the implication for resource spend, the future is startlingly bleak," he said.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said the civil servants' paper how both the absence of a devolved administration and strategic approach to public spending was "further compounding a difficult financial context".

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