NI budget reveals health spend increase

Image caption A lack of devolution at Stormont means the budget will be passed into law using Westminister legislation

Northern Ireland’s budget for 2017/18 has been published and shows an increase in health spending of 5.4%.

It will be passed into law at Westminster later this week after 10 months without a devolved executive at Stormont.

NI Secretary James Brokenshire said that public services would begin to run out of money if a budget was not in place by the end of November.

The budget numbers were recently shared with the local parties.

It comes after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin failed to reach a deal in political talks.

Overall, the amount of money available for day-to-day spending is up by 3.2%, meaning no real increase when inflation is considered.

Analysis: John Campbell, BBC News NI economics editor

Better late than never, Northern Ireland finally has a budget for the 2017-18 financial year.

It means a cliff-edge of running out of cash has been avoided.

Civil servants have been controlling the finances since the executive collapsed before a budget was set.

Overall, the allocation for day-to-day spending is up by 3.2%, or about £330m, on 2016-17.

However, because of inflation, the budget has really flat-lined in real terms.

The budget does not include any of the £1bn windfall that the DUP extracted for propping up the Conservative government; that is to come separately.

In April, indicative figures suggested the education budget would be cut, causing an outcry from teachers and parents.

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However, the education budget is up by 1.5% compared to last year, the justice budget is down by 0.4% and the agriculture and environment budget is down by 3%.

Health economists usually estimate that health service spending needs to rise by an annual rate of 3% – 5% to cope with rising demand.

The Department of Finance has cautioned that the budget is not fully comparable to the 2016/17 budget due to timing differences.

The 2016/17 budget was published before the start of the financial year while this budget comes mid-year and includes in-year reallocations.

Analysis: Mark Devenport, BBC News NI political editor

Is this direct rule or not direct rule? It depends who you talk to.

The SDLP says it is direct rule, and blames the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The Alliance party says it is a “slippery slope” towards direct rule, but both James Brokenshire and Theresa May dismiss that.

Mr Brokenshire is fearful of “full-fat” direct rule because it would be very hard to get back out of it.

He might, therefore, try and get away with this halfway house solution, at least until the end of the year.

Earlier, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds welcomed the budget bill move as an “absolutely vital… recognition of reality”, which it would be “utter madness” to oppose.

“We are disappointed that the Northern Ireland Budget has to be set at Westminster, we would prefer it to be set at Stormont,” he said.

“But the most important thing is that public services continue to have the funds that they need.”

Mr Brokenshire has said he would be willing to withdraw the budget bill if an executive is formed before December.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption NI Secretary James Brokenshire said a budget is needed in the absence of a devolved government

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was a “significant day” with “decisions being taken in London which should have been taken in Belfast”.

Mr Eastwood said Mr Brokenshire would be delivering the Stormont budget prepared by former Sinn Féin finance minister Mairtín Ó Muilleoir.

The budget will only deal with the 2017-18 financial year.

In a call to the DUP and Sinn Féin on Friday, Prime Minister Theresa May told the parties that Monday’s budget bill was “absolutely not an indication of direct rule”.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said he told the prime minister that direct rule was not an option and called for the establishment of an intergovernmental conference involving London and Dublin.

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