There has been increasing concern in the 2011-2015 mandate of the Assembly over the highly contested budgets of Education and Health. Both the DUP and Sinn Fèin who hold the respective ministries are at pains to see their budgets ‘ring fenced’, even unofficially – meaning they would be protected from cuts to public spending.
BtP can reveal today that the Economic Advisory Group that advises the Finance Minister on economic policy, has recommended that ring fencing budgets should end.
In a document obtained by BtP via the Freedom of Information Act from the EAG following their June 2015 meeting entitled ‘EAG input to the Programme for Government: Principles and Approaches’, a number of recommendations are made.
Under the heading ‘Improve competitiveness and innovation in the public sector’, the EAG stated:
- ‘There should be no ring-fencing of budgets: No budget should be ring-fenced or protected in any aspect of public spending – each element of the budget is up for review.’
This could lead to enormous financial difficulties for three key Departments in the Executive, namely Justice, Health and Education.
Extra finance for the PSNI, school building programmes and front line health services which have been previously ring fenced to one degree or another, would in future be subject to this new principle if adopted by the Executive in the next Programme for Government.
Furthermore, the same report has criticised the voluntary redundancy scheme agreed by Executive parties as part of the Stormont House Agreement, stating;
- All voluntary redundancy schemes must take due consideration of the skills and service implication of potential staff losses for efficiency and risk. EAG is very concerned that the voluntary exit scheme that has been offered recently as key pillar in reform does not appear to do this. Focussing on risk management, waste, and poor performance must be central to workforce planning strategies and the government’s agreeing to the eligibility of individuals’ requests to avail of the redundancy package.
The EAG appear to be concerned by a loss in skilled staff as part of the scheme, which could have potentially damaging implications for the future of the civil service.
This paper may not yet have been seen by all Executive parties, and will make for difficult reading for the respective Ministers of Justice, Health and Education.