What a weird way to plan spending cuts

What’s the most important matter the Executive should be tackling? Your starter for 10. Wrong. It’s the economy stupid. Sammy has finally announced massive £400m cuts – and they’re only the taster. How did they come up with the figures? How were spending ministers involved? Weirdly, consultation will start now – after the cuts have been calculated and will go on for all of two months. Sammy tell us:

I have asked all Departments to provide further details on the implications of this decision for the public services they provide by publishing this information on their respective websites and I would encourage departmental committees to work closely with the relevant Departments to scrutinise this information. Unfortunately, the level of savings required meant that it was simply not possible to exempt entire departments from the process, although I would expect that my Ministerial colleagues would seek to reduce the costs of bureaucracy in the first instance.

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Health Minister McGimpsey is “disgusted” at his Health dept bearing the brunt of 40% of the cuts. Could there be any more eloquent evidence of dysfunctional government than the isolated McGimpsey’s disgust?

How have the Health cuts been broken down to arrive at the overall figure? Turn to the Health dept website and what information do you find? Not a dickey bird. To be fair, the rot starts at the top. Politiking is all. The core problem is the power broking nature of the Executive itself. A single department of the economy won’t – can’t – happen. Only the Alliance Party has the guts to come up with the limited alternative to cuts on this scale – to end the disastrous crowd-pleasing rates freeze and let water charges “ gently rise.”

Does the Executive have the will to implement Richard Barnett’s report on economic policy, the Irish Times asked? Arlene Foster is distracted just now but would it make any difference if she wasn’t? The business sector bangs on about grand strategy it can’t affect – to reduce the size of the “bloated “ public sector and therefore taxation, which is beyond the Executive’s remit. The only creative tension is over the future of the severely criticised InVest NI as analysed by the specialist John Simpson who has the field to himself. Barnett insists it should better target seed corn money to R&D and stop chucking it at new businesses more or less at random (my version). Will we ever wake up to the economic challenge when the real cuts begin to bite? I doubt it. Easier to hit default and blame the Brits after the begging bowl finally stops rattling.

IERP report – The Key Recommendations are worth repeating
? Core economic functions in Northern Ireland should be brought under a single ‘Department of the Economy’
? The Executive should establish a permanent sub-committee, chaired by the Enterprise Minister, to prioritise action on the economy. The committee should oversee the development and implementation of an economic strategy
? More emphasis needs to be placed on developing policies to promote Innovation and R&D
? InvestNI should have a more focused, dedicated and professional approach to strengthening export performance in manufacturing and tradable services
? InvestNI should be allowed more freedom to operate, enabling the organisation to be more responsive to business needs
? A small business unit to be created within InvestNI, and the approach of working only with ‘clients’ should cease
? Aside from funds designed to support seed stage projects, InvestNI should disengage its direct involvement with venture capital (VC) funds and should act as a facilitator between companies and VCs
? A study of industrial land provision should be commissioned to determine why there is a perceived need for InvestNI to purchase large amounts of land
? InvestNI should consider an internal reorganisation that reflects the differing skill sets required to support FDI, exports, Innovation / R&D and small business support
? Grants for business expansion should be phased out towards 2013. The resources should be redirected to provide greater levels of support to Innovation and R&D in indigenous and foreign owned companies
? A new institution for commercially-orientated research should be exploredInvestNI should establish a more dedicated and professional approach to supporting and stimulating exports
? In terms of supporting value added business expansions not involving Innovation and R&D, InvestNI should provide co-financing in the form of equity and / or debt to those companies that have been successful in securing funding from the private sector
? InvestNI should further reduce its support for company training, and concentrate support mainly to small firms and to projects with a high Innovative content, where retraining is necessary to realise a substantial rise in productivity
? The local education system should prepare now to meet the anticipated increased demand for higher level skills in Stem and other Innovation relevant subjects, arising from the increased prioritisation of Innovation and R&D
? Additional research in universities and public sector bodies should be aligned closely with the needs of industry in NI and potential inward investors to NI. Furthermore, the development of specific new research capabilities should be used as an incentive to attract potential investors
? Industry-led Innovation communities should be developed as a pilot to bring together business, academia and Government and exploit available market opportunities
? The Planning Service should have processing time targets which are competitive

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London