£2.4 million Brexit fund for north was not all spent on EU exit

Former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt
By Rebecca Black, Press Association

A £2.4 million fund to help Northern Ireland prepare for the UK's withdrawal from the EU was not all spent for that purpose, it has emerged.

Northern Ireland received £2.4 million in the 2017/18 financial year from a fund announced by Chancellor Philip Hammond last autumn to help government departments and the devolved administrations prepare for Brexit.

However, Ulster Unionist Party MLA Mike Nesbitt says the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling revealed to him the £2.4m was not spent on Brexit preparations.

In an email to Mr Nesbitt, Mr Sterling says the money came too late in the financial year for the civil service to spend.

"This was received very late in the year and was factored into the overall level resources available and as such was not used specifically for the purposes of EU exit preparations," Mr Sterling wrote.

Mr Nesbitt described the revelation as "bizarre", and pointed out the "anxiety" over Brexit being felt by some in the business, community and voluntary sectors.

"It seems bizarre that they would not have either had something in the pipeline or attempted to at least spend some of the money on EU exit," Mr Nesbitt said.

"Given the anxiety out there at the moment amongst the business, community and voluntary sectors, could they not have hosted engagement sessions to try and allay fears?

"Perhaps they could have commissioned academic research to broaden knowledge of the expected impacts and options available?

"The fact that Northern Ireland is currently in a state of political paralysis during the biggest period of political flux since the Second World War is bad enough.

"We must be able to have confidence that money coming to Northern Ireland through Barnett consequential as a result of EU exit related allocations is being spent to ensure that the region of the UK which stands to be affected most is at least on some level prepared for our exit in March 2019."

However, a spokesman for the Executive Office said it is not accurate to suggest there was no spending on Brexit preparations in 2017-18.

"Departments undertook significant activities in 2017-18 planning and preparing for EU exit, coordinated through the EU Future Relations Programme," the Executive Office spokesman said.

"It is not accurate to suggest no funding was spent on EU Exit Preparations.

"Whilst the funding received for EU Exit through the Barnett formula in 2017-18 was not ring-fenced for this specific purpose (as is the case in 2018-19), departments funded activities relating to EU Exit preparations from within their agreed Budget allocations.

"Some £14.5m has been allocated to departments for EU exit preparations in 2018-19."

Since the suspension of the executive in January last year, civil servants have been running departments.

Mr Sterling is effectively leading the government in the absence of a first and deputy first minister.

He wrote in the email to Mr Nesbitt that £14.5m has been allocated to Northern Ireland for the same fund in the 2018-19 year, and that has been ring-fenced to support EU exit preparations.

According to the email received by Mr Nesbitt, the Department for the Economy is set to receive the biggest slice of the Brexit preparation funding (£5.3m) followed by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (£4.5m).

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