The impact of the budget cuts caused by penalties for the stalling Welfare Reform Bill were top of the agenda as First Minister, Peter Robinson, faced Members’ questions during today’s Question Time. David McNarry was eager to find out what departmental projects might suffer as a result of the cuts. The First Minister revealed that the Finance Minister has proposed a 1.5% cut to all departmental budgets for 2014/2015 to address the reduction in budget but that the Executive has yet to agree to this. We are “facing a nightmare scenario” that could see a potential £1 billion lost over 5 years if Welfare Reform is not agreed and “we cannot ignore the impact and consequences of that”. It is doubtful that full computerisation of a new welfare system would be completed by 2016 – this means manual payments would have to be employed resulting in increased staff levels and further costs. While difficult decisions will have to be made, the First Minister is “seeking to minimise the impact on front line services”.
Junior Minister, Jonathan Bell, also provided the house with an update on the implementation of recommendations resulting from the Independent Assessment Report on the Victims and Survivors Service. The programme board overseeing the project has agreed an implementation plan that identifies the actions, time frames and ownership for each recommendation. Significant action has already been taken with more than half of the recommendations having been fully or partially implemented. The majority of recommendations should be implemented by the end of June 2014 while the remaining few should be fully rolled out by March 2015. The Junior Minister pointed out that “in many ways, for some victims, we can never make things right” but “we are determined to do all that we can in our power to ensure that what we can get right, we will get right”.
During the regular oral question period Mr Robinson also answered questions on cross-departmental working and tackling social issues and poverty. In the topical question period which followed the First Minister also fielded questions on the Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre, the upcoming Giro d’Italia and the performance of Invest NI as well as providing an update on the progress of Judge Hallett’s ‘On-the-Run’ inquiry.