McDonnell: Achieving a tough but fair Budget is not beyond us

Yesterday the Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton proposed his draft budget. Writing for Slugger the Leader of the SDLP, Alasdair McDonnell MP, argues that a tough budget need not be an unfair budget

This draft budget is a bad budget – one that puts political expediency above the needs of the people that it is supposed to serve. The trouble began with the DUP’s unilateral negotiation and Sinn Féin’s unilateral acceptance of a 100m loan from the Treasury. The SDLP opposed this at the time with our Minister at the Executive Mark H Durkan calling it a ‘ridiculous and irresponsible’ attempt to patch up an escalating budget. Unfortunately the SDLP were proved right because one of the conditions of the loan was that the Executive agree a draft Budget by the end of October. In a bid to meet the Treasury demands the Minister for Finance rushed through a draft budget with mere hours of consultation with Executive colleagues about the devastating cuts that were about to be imposed.

It is impossible to know what is more disappointing. A Finance Minister who at the behest of the Treasury ignored process and best practice to force this draft Budget through or the complete u-turn from Sinn Féin who not only capitulated to dogmatic Tory cuts but now appear to be dismissing the public consultation process by saying that this is the best deal that can be done.

We should never have been in this position. The SDLP voted against the Budget originally in 2011 because we knew that setting a budget for four years would not allow the Executive to respond and adapt to any changing economic circumstances. Not only did the Minister for Finance not take decisive action in the face of a looming economic crisis, he rushed through a Budget with no proper explanation of baselines, allocations or consideration for coming years. Not only was this budget not open or transparent, it is not strategic. A Budget for 2015-16 in isolation from anticipating the following years is not fiscally sound.

But the real reason that the SDLP Budget opposed this budget is that it is bad for jobs and workers, particularly those who live in the west. Let no one be of in any doubt. This is an anti-worker budget. Pay freezes and redundancies and impacts to jobs and services will hit the lowest paid hardest. Those families who are already struggling will now face even greater hardship.  This draft Budget enshrines regional imbalance. DETI is the only Department to get an increase in funding. You might think that this is a welcome move as DETI helps to attract investment and increase jobs. Yet experience has taught us that DETI focus investment in the East increasing the disadvantage in the west. If the Finance Minister were properly focused on job creation then further support should have been given to SMEs who are the biggest employer in the private sector. Yet this Budget will have a particular impact on SMEs and local regional jobs with cuts in the Department of the Environment affecting funding for de-rating and other Council grants that would support job creation. This Budget will also adversely affect those councils most in need of financial support – they will not be able to deliver services comparable with better off council areas.

While the SDLP opposed this Budget we felt it was vital that it was put out to consultation. Today in the Assembly, Alban Maginness MLA asked Minister Hamilton why the consultation period had been shortened saying that people needed to see how savage the cuts actually are. People need to examine the detail to see the impact on their jobs and services for themselves.

The SDLP know all about the Budget pressures. We acknowledge the gravity of the financial situation we are in, even if we do not accept that getting here was inevitable. There are some positives in this Budget that we would like to see expanded upon including measures that the SDLP recommended in previous policy papers including proposals how Ministers deal with the budget processes and the use of zero-based budgeting; further investment in infrastructure by the leveraging of additional funding and further asset sales to raise much needed revenue. Central to this Budget, despite cuts, must be equity for lower paid workers and for the regions.

Achieving a tough but fair Budget is not beyond us. The SDLP will not walk away from that challenge. We believe that a better deal can be secured as part of the Talks process which is where the Budget should have been dealt with in greater detail.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.