Business

PLATFORM: An opportunity to deliver a budget for health

"While the indications are that the spending review outcome will not be good for the Executive, a collective approach can produce a budget that finally brings down waiting lists on a sustainable basis." - Conor Murphy

The UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak will announce the outcome of a spending review during Wednesday's Budget. Picture by Aaron Chown/PA Wire.
Conor Murphy MLA and Finance Minister

ON Wednesday the British Government’s spending review will confirm the Executive’s block grant for the next three years.

A multi-year budget provides an opportunity to better plan and prioritise finances.

However, there is little indication that the British Government will provide the investment needed to rebuild public services and spur economic recovery.

Even before the onset of Covid our public services were under enormous strain as result of austerity.

Demands on health and other services increased at the same time as the Executive’s block grant reduced in real terms.

Nevertheless £600 million was carved out annually to protect people from Tory policies.

Among other things this money prevents families from being billed for the basic necessity of water, provides free travel for the elderly, bans the cruel bedroom tax, and keeps university fees affordable.

This is money well spent. But with limited tax and borrowing powers, and no ability to build up reserves, it is not possible for the Executive to reverse every bad policy introduced by the Tories.

The British Government could fund extra investment by increasing taxes on the wealthy.

A good start would be tackling tax avoidance and evasion which costs the Exchequer tens of billions of pounds annually.

But given the interests served by the British Conservative party there is little prospect of that happening.

In the absence of a good spending review, equipping the health service with the resources it needs to pay its workers properly and permanently bring down waiting lists will be difficult.

That is why I have asked ministerial colleagues to prepare to divert resources from their departments to health.

Increasing domestic rates, the Executive’s only major tax lever, has been cited as a solution. I would caution that a one per cent increase in domestic rates generates less than £3m.

To put that into context, a 22 per cent increase in domestic rates would be needed to pay for a one per cent increase in the health budget.

Therefore while rates are an important source of revenue they will not transform our financial position.

If the economic context is difficult the political landscape is also potentially challenging with an election scheduled for next May.

I hope that party politics will be set aside in favour of a genuine discussion between all ministers about how to collectively prioritise our limited resources.

For the reality is that the Executive has a largely fixed budget, and that extra money for one service therefore means less money for another service.

In addition, the budget cannot be set unilaterally by the Finance Minister. It requires a shared effort across all five Executive parties.

While the indications are that the spending review outcome will not be good for the Executive, a collective approach can produce a budget that finally brings down waiting lists on a sustainable basis.

That is the budget I am committed to delivering.

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