On Tuesday, the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Communities (DfC) wrote to each of the parties to express concern at the £111m shortfall facing his department.
Responding, the South Down MLA said:
‘‘The budget set by the Secretary of State for 2023/24 will have a destructive impact on spending by departments across Northern Ireland. As the dust settles, it is becoming clear that even the most vulnerable in our society will not be immune to the raft of cuts hurtling towards us.
DfC have warned that with no money available to pay overtime or recruit additional staff, those applying for benefits will have to wait longer to receive vital support. The budget for Discretionary Support Payments is also expected to be cut. This is deeply alarming especially at a time when high inflation and the war in Ukraine are driving up the cost of living and edging more households toward the breadline.
There are also continuing concerns surrounding the ability to ensure fair pay for public sector workers. Over 9,000 people are employed by DfC. With the Government planning to use any in-year Barnett consequentials to recoup previous overspend, it is not clear where the money will come from to cover any pay awards. That issue must be addressed urgently and the resources provided to ensure frontline staff are not only recruited and properly paid but retained.’’
DUP South Antrim MLA Pam Cameron added:
‘‘The cause of these problems is not financial mismanagement or the lack of a functioning Executive. The Communities resource budget has been slashed by more than 30% in the last ten years and almost every department is facing similar pressures today to the tune into tens and even hundreds of millions of pounds. Core services would have been slashed under Sinn Fein’s draft budget too.
The fact is the Barnett Formula is fundamentally failing Northern Ireland. The level of Treasury funding for local public services is falling rather rising. Indeed we are fast approaching a point where services are unlikely to be deliverable at current levels let alone transformed for future generations.
Those who claim a restored Executive could resolve this situation at the drop of a hat are either playing politics or living in a fool’s paradise. At one-point last year, Sinn Fein were promising "the biggest shake-up that we have ever seen in housing." Now, just like the rest of us, they are coming to terms with the fact that the DfC budget will actually lead to reduced targets for building new social housing in the current financial year.
This underlines the need for structural change in how Northern Ireland is funded. We need ministers in a future Executive to be able to invest strategically and sustainably in public sector reform rather than having to firefight problems stored up because of a lack of resources. The Welsh precedent, where is a funding floor, shows that this is possible with the political will. It is imperative that the Secretary of State listens and acts on these concerns.’’