Northern Ireland news

Lack of budget ‘jeopardising public services' in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris will set the budget for Northern Ireland in the absence of devolved ministers (Liam McBurney/PA)
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

The lack of a budget in Northern Ireland is jeopardising the delivery of key services, the heads of more than 50 public sector bodies have warned.

The Public Sector Chairs’ Forum, which represents public bodies across the region, has written to Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris calling on him to act urgently.

The body also said its members were alarmed by the potential impact of “drastic reductions” on public services.

In the absence of devolved Stormont ministers, Mr Heaton-Harris is responsible for setting the budget, in which several departments are facing large cuts.

Permanent secretaries, who are currently running Stormont departments, have been asked to find savings.

No date has currently been set for the budget.

In the letter from the forum chair, Nicole Lappin, it is warned that an “outline financial envelope representing up to 20% reductions on 2022-23 spending has been indicated”.

It added: “Members are alarmed by the potential impact of such drastic reductions, which is exacerbated by the uncertainty brought about by the lack of a definitive budget.

“This non-strategic approach is neither practical nor cost-effective and is jeopardising our ability both to deliver key services and support their essential transformation.

“In the absence of locally elected ministers, the legal responsibility to set a budget for Northern Ireland falls to you.

“Following considerable discussion, members are therefore taking the unprecedented step of writing to call on you to act urgently and provide a strategic and manageable way forward.”

The letter continued: “Given that we are already one month into the financial year, we call on you to provide urgent clarity.”

A number of Stormont departments are facing cuts in the budget (Liam McBurney/PA)

A leaked Northern Ireland Office briefing paper recently estimated the devolved executive is losing £700 million a year by failing to charge for services like domestic water supply, prescriptions, domiciliary care, transport for the over-60s and having significantly lower university tuition fees than England.

When local ministers left office last year, Stormont was facing a £600 million black hole.

Civil servants were forced to make a range of in-year savings and the Treasury provided a £300 million advance down-payment on the current financial year’s block grant to help bridge the financial gap.

However, that £300 million will have to recouped in the current financial year.

The briefing paper estimated that £345 million could be generated by introducing domestic water charges, while raising tuition fees could bring in an additional £145 million a year.

The document said Northern Ireland is receiving 21% more per head of population than England for the period 2022-25.