Never mind the wrangling. What can the Intergovernmental Conference achieve?

We’ve  never been that great about commenting on economics and finance have we? Unless they’re fodder for the same old, same old wrangle  or we’re demanding more, more money from the Brits who never give us what we really deserve.  We get far more craic (crack, old spelling) out of the antics of Paisley junior, the very epitome of a farcical son of a overwhelming father who also  thought some rules weren’t made for him.  No prizes for guessing that the substance of the 2019-19 Budget will fail to dominate the today’s Intergovernmental Conference, tiresomely billed by some as the latest threat to the Union.What a cop-out for the Newsletter to give the lead on their preview to Jim Allister!

No prizes  for guessing that British and Irish minsters with an agenda   “shrouded in secrecy” will fail to jump over the bar towards restoring Stormont. Not a single hint of an idea has emerged about that, beyond suggesting we are in direct rule by no name and minimum action.  John Simpson errs on the dry side of comment in the Belfast Telegraph. But his analysis is a whole lot better than no comment at all, though two cheers for the Assembly research department for doing their best.   John simply argues for  greater transparency and accountability? Is this really too much to ask for?  The figure to notice is £18.1 billion.

John Simpson extracts

The usual (oversimplified and therefore misleading) convenient description of the NI Budget quotes two figures: the approved current annual spending levels for NI departments of just under £11bn and the expected level of capital spending of £1.4bn.

This form of shorthand has, in recent years, led to references (now slightly outdated) to the NI Budget being about £10bn.

In the published NI budget plans for 2018-19 there is no attempt to offer an overview of the full Budget. Revenue and spending, current and capital, are not shown in aggregate totals and there is no supplementary table to show how supplementary funds allow the budget to balance.

There is an important omission from the NI budget plan. Nowhere in the plan is the scale of direct Treasury funding for social security and central pensions obligations identified.

To find this information, the advice is to go to the 300+ page volume of the Departmental Estimates.

Adding together these directly cash managed funds (known as annual managed expenditure) for all of the departments points to further spending of over £11.5bn.

The definitions used by the Department of Finance take account of a large number of revenue and spending definitions so that, on their definitions, the flow of public sector finance in NI is over £18.1bn.

Arguably, the published NI budget plans fall short of what might be expected. The budget plans do not bring together, in an omnibus presentation, information on:

  1. A summary of all the main revenue and spending headings, reflecting how the budget is balanced.
  2. Total revenue available for Stormont services, through the Block Grant, regional rate and other sources, as well as EU funds.
  3. Total expenditure on Stormont services, showing current and capital commitments and directly financed spending on social security and official pensions.
  4. Details of supplementary finance from exceptional changes (such as the Fresh Start and funds from the Confidence and Supply agreement).
  5. The proposed amount of capital borrowing approved by the Treasury and the repayments bills.

To add to the value of the presentation, comparative figures for recent years would be an aid to understanding changes.

Also, an extract from the Treasury comparison of spending levels in the different UK regions, admittedly a year in arrears, would be useful.

 

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