Northern Ireland's latest draft budget 'difficult' says Conor Murphy

By Clodagh Rice
BBC News NI Business Correspondent

image captionConor Murphy said the required support "to kick start our economic recovery" has not been delivered

The finance minister has announced a "difficult" draft budget for the next financial year.

The amount of money the executive receives was set by the Treasury's Spending Review in November.

Conor Murphy said it had not delivered the required level of support "to kick start our economic recovery from Covid-19 and Brexit".

"It is difficult and effectively a standstill of our 2020-21 budget position," he added.

The draft budget is broadly flat in cash terms for government departments, setting aside additional funding to deal with Covid-19 and as part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

The executive's response to Covid-19 has been allocated £538m, compared to more than £3bn received last year.

More than half of that funding - £380m - will go to the Department of Health, while £30.6m will go to the Department of Education to help low income families and £700,000 towards higher education.

The remaining £126.9m has yet to be allocated.

Funding packages not yet confirmed

"With increased demands on public services, and taking account of inflation, it will be a challenge merely to deliver existing services at their current levels," Mr Murphy said.

"Choices will have to be made, public services will have to be prioritised."

Money for welfare reform mitigations and special education needs has been prioritised.

But funding packages for measures outlined in the confidence-and-supply agreement, the NI Protocol, the New Decade, New Approach and city deals have yet to be confirmed by Secretary of State Brandon Lewis.

image captionFunding will go towards projects such as the A5 road scheme

No funding has been set aside for victims pensions payments, only the administrative cost of the pensions.

Flagship infrastructure projects like the A5, the A6 and Casement Park, as well as the schools estate and social housing, will get £1.75bn of capital spending.

"Next year we intend to freeze the regional rates for both households and businesses," Mr Murphy said.

"I would urge councils to play their part and do the same in respect of their district rates.

"I also intend to provide £150m of additional business rates support in 2021-22."

Glyn Roberts, from Retail NI, said it had been "lobbying for further rate relief" and was pleased by Mr Murphy's commitment.

The head of the Federation of Small Businesses in NI, Roger Pollen, also welcomed the move but said "councils must also step up and ensure that their share of the rate bills are not increased for businesses".

Consultation on the draft budget has now opened and will run until 25 February, with a final budget to be put to the assembly before April.

On the issue of victims' pensions, a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office said: "The UK government legislated for this scheme in the absence of the executive.

"This remains a devolved matter and, as such, funding has to come from the block grant."

They added the government has "provided unprecedented levels of additional funding to the Northern Ireland Executive this year, totalling more than £6bn".

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