Assembly Election

Stormont crisis: Civil servants warn about 'budget uncertainty'

The lack of a budget is causing difficulties for civil servants. Picture by Mal McCann
David Young and Claire Simpson

CIVIL servants are trying to deliver public services amid political uncertainty and the lack of a budget, the head of the north's civil service has said.

Sir Malcolm McKibbin warned there was only a "small window of opportunity" for a new executive to strike a budget before the start of the next financial year.

He has written to all civil servants setting out the way ahead if a new government is not formed by April.

In such circumstances, the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance has powers to allocate a limited proportion of the block grant.

"From our perspective one of the most difficult and pressing issues is the absence of the 2017/18 budget as the executive did not agree this before the assembly was dissolved," he said.

Sir Malcolm said if civil servants took over spending controls for the coming year the aim would be to ensure "business as usual".

But he warned they would not be able to launch any new projects or policies "which would require ministerial or executive endorsement".

"Departmental accounting officers will also have to be prudent and aim to avoid committing to new patterns of expenditure which would go beyond what they might reasonably expect to be allocated in a budget for 2017/18 once this is agreed."

He said the civil service would continue to work on the last executive's draft programme for government and supporting strategies to "ensure that they are available for consideration by incoming ministers".

Sir Malcolm's letter came as the Alliance Party said emergency legislation should be introduced at Westminster to allow the civil service to set a budget.

Party leader Naomi Long and deputy leader Stephen Farry have asked Secretary of State James Brokenshire to amend the Northern Ireland Act if an executive is not agreed in the next three weeks.

Dr Farry said the lack of a budget means that thousands of people, particularly those employed in the community and voluntary sectors, could lose their jobs.

"The emergency provisions say only 75 per cent of last year's budget can be allocated at the end of March," he said.

"There are no legal means to strike a regional rate, meaning a shortfall of well over £1 billion in spending power."

Mr Farry said there is likely to be a "freeze on any discretionary spending, which would have a disproportionate impact on the community and voluntary sector".

"Already we have key budget areas, notably the health service, schools, and policing, in a difficult situation".

He said the Northern Ireland Act had been amended before and his party thought there would be "cross-party support" for the proposals.

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