Ulster Unionist Party Assemblyman Roy Beggs MLA has questioned the new Finance Minister Arlene Foster MLA on the on-going impasse relating to welfare reform and the adverse consequences that welfare fines will have on public spending.
Roy Beggs MLA, who was called for the first question said “I congratulate the Finance Minister on her appointment. Can I ask her for her assessment of on-going welfare penalties on public spending?”
The Finance Minister, previously of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, responded stating “Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker and Mr Beggs, for your congratulations.
The Executive’s 2015-16 Budget is predicated on the implementation of welfare reform halfway through this year and the subsequent return of 50% of the £114 million reduction applied by Her Majesty’s Treasury. Delays in implementation will reduce the funding returned to the Executive, while failure to progress the Bill at all will mean that the £114 million reduction will apply in full.
Her Majesty’s Treasury has not indicated the level of reductions beyond 2015-16. However, the Social Security Agency’s estimates of the forgone UK Exchequer savings of not implementing welfare reform in Northern Ireland are significant and will increase in the coming years, reaching £366 million in 2018-19. Clearly, the removal of those sums will have a significant impact on budgets and would necessitate further cuts at a time when we can least afford to reduce public spending.
East Antrim MLA Roy Beggs also asked; “The Minister outlined that a range of other funds were dependent on the Stormont House Agreement being delivered. Can she advise us of the options for presenting a balanced Budget, which, I understand, has to occur before the summer recess, if that agreement is not made? What options exist for the Northern Ireland Executive?”
Minister Foster responded ; “Of course, we had a balanced Budget when the Stormont House Agreement was made. There were a number of elements to that, not least the implementation of the reduction of corporation tax and the ability to deal with the £100 million that was loaned to the Northern Ireland Executive. At the moment, given that the Stormont House Agreement has not been implemented, there is, as I think my predecessor made clear to the House at the last Question Time, a £500 million hole in the Budget. There is a very short window of opportunity to deal with that. Given that I have been in post for less than 24 hours, that is something that I have grasped pretty quickly. We have around two weeks to deal with the matter, or we will have to look to contingency planning in relation to the Budget. I certainly do not want to go down that route, so we will have to grasp the nettle very quickly.”
Concluding, Mr Beggs added “The current impasse on welfare reform and potential failure to approve the detailed spending plans for 2015/16, is not helping anyone in Northern Ireland. Fines and penalty charges are mount up.
We need a resolution to the problem and we need all Party’s to implement the previously agreed financial aspect of the Stormont House Agreement. The current period of uncertainty has created a £500m black hole in our budget, which would result in additional severe cuts in many areas would adversely affect the community generally and vulnerable individuals in particular. We need common sense to prevail.”
Notes: debate can be found @ http://aims.niassembly.gov.uk/officialreport/report.aspx?&eveDate=2015/05/12&docID=233140