Minister for Finance and Personnel, Arlene Foster, was asked about the upcoming Budget during today’s Question Time. There was unease in the chamber given the question marks over the Budget created by the uncertainty over welfare reform and what it means for the Stormont House Agreement. Mrs Foster maintained “the Budget that I am bringing forward is a Budget that is based on the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. Therefore, the people who are not standing by the Stormont House Agreement have to look at themselves and ask themselves why they are not standing by their commitments in the Stormont House Agreement. To do otherwise will cause grave difficulties to public services in Northern Ireland.” Jim Allister enquired if the Minister has met with the Treasury, concerned that a Budget with a “£604m black hole” cannot be set without putting us on a course for breaching Treasury constraints. The Minister affirmed that she intends to meet with the Treasury as soon as possible adding “as to breaching our controls, I am bringing the Budget forward on the premise that the whole of the Stormont House Agreement will be implemented: not parts of it, but all of it. If all of it comes to fruition, the Budget will not have a hole of £604 million.”
The Minister was also asked for an update on the Voluntary Exit Scheme process. Many members expressed concern for the funding of the scheme given the uncertainty around welfare reform, the Stormont House Agreement and the consequent budget. Mrs Foster explained “the voluntary exit scheme and the £700 million required to fund it are key elements of the Stormont House Agreement, so, at present, we are unable to access that funding. That has significant implications for the Executive’s Budget, the budgets of public-sector bodies and, importantly, the individuals affected.” The situation is complicated further as Departments have factored pay bill savings they would make from the scheme in their budgets. The Minister warned that failure to fully implement the Stormont House Agreement would result in the loss of the £700m required for the Voluntary Exit Scheme, £150m for organisations dealing with the past, £500m over 10 years for shared and integrated education and flexibilities arranged in relation to the £100m loan obtained in 2014-15. There would also be the additional pressure of the £114m yearly cost of not implementing welfare reform.
Mrs Foster also answered Members queries on rates revaluation, cooperation with the Scottish Government, the Social Innovation Fund and Northern Ireland’s composite economic index.