“Northern Ireland is already in the midst of a budgetary crisis, as the ongoing absence of a Budget has restricted the opportunity for strategic planning at a time when scarce resources should dictate every pound is spent efficiently and effectively,” said Dr Farry.
“The lack of advanced notification has led to potentially thousands of employees, especially within the community and voluntary sector, being placed on protective notice. In the best case scenario of a formal Budget being agreed before the end of March, we will see Departments, arms-length bodies and other organisations having to spend money from a standing start.
“If the Executive is not restored and a Budget promptly agreed, the situation could be even worse. The emergency provisions say only 75 per cent of last year’s Budget can be allocated at the end of March. There are no legal means to strike a regional rate, meaning a shortfall of well over £1 billion in spending power.
“It is not realistic to expect accounting officers to proceed at risk and to allocate more than the 75 per cent in anticipation of a formal Budget being provided. Therefore, we can expect some type of 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.
“In parallel with efforts to achieve the formation of a devolved Executive, Alliance is advocating the Secretary of State processes emergency legislation in Westminster to reform Article 59 of the Northern Ireland Act in four respects, namely first to increase the threshold for allocations at the end of March to 95 per cent of last year’s allocations, second to bring forward the date by which the Civil Service can strike a Budget, even if this decision is subsequently superseded by a formal Executive Budget before the end of March or thereafter, third to allow for the allocation of accruing resources, and fourth, allowing for a regional rate to be determined based upon a real terms increase on the level for the 16/17 financial year.
“This intervention constitutes a different approach than the restoration of Direct Rule, and represents a sensible and pragmatic response to provide to the Civil Service a more realistic funding decision to be taken to avoid even further damage being done to public services and the economy from the already delayed Budget, and to avoid the people of Northern Ireland being unreasonably punished for the failure of their politicians, which could take several years to recover from. Any legislation would be viewed as a contingency at this stage, but the UK Parliament has previously amended the Northern Ireland Act to provide for contingencies and to offer a menu of options to the Assembly so fundamental precedent would be set by the amendments we propose, and we would also anticipate that there would be cross-party support for them.”