Arlene Foster participated in her first Question Time as Minister for Finance and Personnel and was asked for an assessment of the consequences of ongoing welfare penalties on public spending. The Executive’s 2015-16 budget is predicated on the implementation of welfare reform half way through the year. Completion of which will see a 50% return of the £114m penalty applied by the Treasury. Failure to do so could see the penalty applied in full with larger fines on the horizon if there is still no agreement beyond 2016, possibly reaching as much as £366m by 2019. Mrs Foster lamented that “clearly, the removal of those sums will have a significant impact on budgets and would necessitate further cuts at a time when we can least afford to reduce public spending.” Other funds are also dependent on the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement meaning that the Budget may have to be revised if failure to agree welfare reform compromises its delivery. It may leave a £500m hole in the budget with very little time to resolve – “We have around two weeks to deal with the matter, or we will have to look to contingency planning in relation to the Budget. I certainly do not want to go down that route, so we will have to grasp the nettle very quickly”.
Patsy McGlone then asked the Minister for an assessment of the impact of the review of non-domestic rates on the small business sector. Mrs Foster declared that many, if not the majority, of small business ratepayers have benefited from the revaluation whilst acknowledging that some may be paying more depending on their relative success or decline since the last revaluation. The Minister also pointed to additional support provided to small businesses in the form of rates convergence, the small businesses rate relief and the empty premises rate relief scheme. Mrs Foster also highlighted that the revaluation was long overdue, given that the last one was completed in 2001.
The new Finance Minister also fielded questions on financial transactions capital, economic performance in the construction sector, the Voluntary Exit Scheme and direct foreign investment.