Sharp exchanges mark Assembly budget debate

The final debate on the budget at Stormont

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There have been sharp exchanges at the Assembly where MLAs will vote later on a budget for the next four years.

It is thought both the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP will vote against the plan if, as expected, last minute amendments proposed by both parties are defeated.

Seven hours have been set aside for the final budget debate.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said he had explored every avenue for extra money and accused his critics of having no alternatives.

The Ulster Unionist Party has tabled an amendment calling for £165m extra to be allocated to the health service in the first year of the new budget.

Last week the DUP finance minister offered Health Minister Michael McGimpsey an additional £120m over four years.

During the debate, Mr Wilson criticised Mr McGimpsey.

"I still find it disgraceful that the health minister can seek to justify his action, or maybe rather inaction, in the media when he has never approached his Executive colleagues with any plans to make the health service delivery more efficient in Northern Ireland," he said.

Start Quote

It is a formula for thousands of job losses and it will heap a mountain of misery on vulnerable households”

End Quote Margaret Ritchie SDLP leader

"I have said many times that I would welcome all new ideas but sadly nothing realistic has emerged from my loudest critics.

"Any ideas that have emerged are often contradictory or display a profound degree of ignorance of the public expenditure regime that the devolved administrations have to operate within.

"So, unlike my critics, I didn't have the luxury of being able to construct a budget that wasn't earthed in reality."

However, Ulster Unionist David McNarry said the proposed budget should be revised.

Resign

"I urge the house to rethink, before the unthinkable results in public outrage and deep despair," he said

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie also tabled an amendment calling for the proposals to include a strategy for raising revenue.

"This budget fails the people of Northern Ireland," she said.

"It is a formula for thousands of job losses and it will heap a mountain of misery on vulnerable households."

The budget, which was largely drawn up by the DUP and Sinn Fein, sought to offset the cuts by identifying more than £1bn in revenue-raising ideas, but opponents have claimed the financial blueprint does not stand up to scrutiny.

At the weekend, Ulster Unionist minister Danny Kennedy refused to rule out the possibility that he and his party colleague, Michael McGimpsey, might resign from the Executive over the budget.

Following legal advice, the resignations now seem less likely. Some MLAs are expected to abstain from the votes instead.

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