It is intolerable that Stormont is handing back hundreds of millions of pounds to London when urgent cancer cases are being denied treatment

The news that 275 people in Northern Ireland with “red-flag” cancer have had their surgery cancelled in the past week has been followed by the tragic irony  that the  Health Service  has been forced  to hand back £90 million unspent this year to the Treasury in Whitehall . The dismal information reminds me of Irish farm produce being exported from Ireland during the Famine of the 1840s while more than a  million starved.  The theory behind it is even more arcane – the practice prolonged by Covid  of persisting with single year budgeting  which appears to allow only very restricted carryover from one year to the next. Carry over  was resisted even in better times as bad accounting practice and often exposed the Executive’s chronic failure to reach decisions even when benefiting with wheezes like the so-called peace dividend and the  confidence and supply deal between May’s Conservatives and the DUP.

Health minster Robin Swann is respected for at least trying his efforts. His frankness is appalling

 His inability to roll over funds into the coming financial year has forced the health service to hand back £90 million in the midst of the pandemic, Robin Swann said.

Mr Swann told MLAs he could have spent five times the returned sum if he was allowed to retain it beyond March 31. The Health Minister said the non-recurrent funding model, which sees his department receive money on a year-to-year basis, was hampering his ability to take action to tackle the region’s spiralling waiting lists

He said it particularly limited his ability to outsource treatment to the private sector, as independent providers needed more certainty on future revenue streams to enable them to hire more staff and expand facilities.

Mr Swann was fielding an Assembly question on the Department of Health’s reliance on private sector providers to undertake surgeries that have been delayed due to the pandemic.

“If I had flexibility that I could roll into next year, into the further year, or actually have a multi-year budget, I could have utilised that money five times over.

“But the difficulties in our accounting system, the fact that we’re in a one-year budget that is non-recurring, puts that additional challenge of being able to spend.”

Mr Swann said Finance Minister Conor Murphy was seeking to secure flexibility from the Treasury to enable Stormont to roll money over.

The minister said between April and December, the department had procured treatment for 3,900 patients in Northern Ireland’s three independent private sector hospitals using health service consultants. 

He said an additional 112 private sector theatre sessions had been secured to deal with urgent cancer and other time critical operations.

The minister said some private sector facilities in the Irish Republic were also being used to treat health service patients from Northern Ireland.

Mr Swann told MLAs that there had been more capacity in the independent sector in earlier waves of the pandemic as the providers had been experiencing a drop off in demand for services from private patients.

He said that was no longer the case, highlighting that private sector hospitals were now experiencing increased demand on services, limiting the ability of the Department of Health to procure treatment.

The minister said the private sector was a “critical tool” in his department’s work to reduce all waiting lists.

“We can only go to those private sectors with a one-year allocation, a one-year pot, and what they need to increase their capacity to help reduce our waiting lists is actually that surety of three to five years’ funding, so they can increase their facilities, increase their staff to actually start to eat into our waiting lists,” he said.

I think Robin Swann is telling us here that  the private hospitals have reached capacity too. Is this correct?

The underspend is much higher taking in all departments, according to Finance minister  Conor Murphy who is encouraging ministers to indulge in a frenzy of spending  bids  that is the traditional sign of poor planning      

More than £200 million of Covid-19 support funding has not yet been spent by Stormont departments.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has urged ministers to make bids for remaining funds as a “matter of urgency”.

Along with the Scottish and Welsh finance minister, Mr Murphy has also requested flexibility from the Treasury to carry over funding into 2021/22.

Northern Ireland has been allocated £3 billion in Covid-19 funding, including £200 million announced just before Christmas.

Mr Murphy told the Assembly today that some £219.2 million of allocations to departments were unspent.

This includes £105.4 million from the Department for the Economy and £90 million from the Department of Health.

Mr Murphy also explained how other monies have been freed up after the Treasury committed to directly fund pressures arising from increased carry forward of annual leave, and the Department of Transport to supporting airports.

He also explained that the latest forecasts of regional rate income show that funding set aside for rate relief measures will not now be required.

Mr Murphy said the total amount of Covid-19 funding for allocation is £509 million.

Departmental bids so far have been met in full, he told MLAs.

Allocations made in the January monitoring round include £154 million for the Department for the Economy to provide support to individuals and businesses.

The Department of Finance will receive £101.6 million, including £100 million to extend the Localised Restrictions Support Scheme, and £600,000 to provide rate relief to local newspapers.

The Department for Infrastructure will receive £12.1 million to help address the impact of Covid-19 on the department.

The Department of Education will receive £7.5 million to continue the response to Covid-19 in schools, and to extend the Lost Learning Programme to special schools.

Mr Murphy said he has asked ministers to bring forward proposals for further support as a “matter of urgency”.

I hope this makes more sense to you than me.

Matthew O’ Toole, the SDLP MLA and a former Treasury and No 10 civil servant has been trying to pick his way through the financial tangle on Twitter.  Pulling together the published  facts,, O’Toole calculates the underspend at £430 million. I’ve followed his argument below.

O’Toole says

 For budgetary moments in NI this week, but there is minimal public understanding of what they mean – frankly there is limited *Assembly* understanding of what they mean. Beneath the headline numbers, there are major issues.  First is the draft – I.e. not final yet – Executive Budget for the *next* financial year, 2021-22, starting in April. Second, is the ‘January Monitoring’ round, which is the last opportunity to move around unspent money in *this* financial year, 2020/21…

 Draft Budget came earlier in the week, but its more logical to explain where we are in this financial year before moving to next. On Covid and non-Covid, there are welcome allocations, small and large –

 But even allowing for the uniqueness of this financial year, the size of underspends is big, especially  in Economy dept.

 Postponed is high st voucher scheme. £93m not spent. Was it wise to commit so much to a scheme dependent on new year retail normality with a pandemic still raging?

 Even more concerning is the impact of lost EU funding. In Jan monitoring, their Brexit supporting minister bid for 26.5m to cover lost EU Social Fund cash. NB this is not even a full year loss

While all new bids have been met, we are still have LOTS of unallocated money left to spend by the end of March. How much? Well when you add together the covid and non-Covid funds, resource (i.e. day to day spend) and Capital (I.e. investment spend)

430 MILLION QUID.

We either find ways of getting it out the door somehow, ask the UK Treasury to allow us to ‘carry it over’ – I.e. spend it next year, post April – or we simply hand it back to them. Now, we will definitely be able to carry SOME of it over. At least 85m, under existing rules..

but probably not all of it. The dysfunctionality of Executive decision making is exacerbated by the structural flaws of the spending rules Treasury set and a fiscal calendar they chop and change to suit English political demands.

Which brings us to the draft Exec 21/22 budget…

This was presented by the finance minister with a brief statement to MLAs and scant detail (full doc online now) The UK Govt’s failure to provide more than a single year of spending review (the planned multi year one was binned) has *again* exacerbate Executive short termism.. They have also failed to live up to commitments on various funding streams previously agreed. As well as making Executive short termism worse, it undermines trust in the UK Government at a time when they are making dissembling and misrepresentation to NI a standing practice.

But for his part the finance minister should be delivering better than this document. In places it looks like it hasn’t even been proofed. One line in the economic chapter says the EU/UK FTA has ‘yet to be decided’… Really? That was a month ago.

There are things to welcome: the minister has finally embraced use of RRI borrowing to fund capital spending when debt costs are so low.

 But broadly speaking this document highlights the lack of strategy behind Exec policy. For a surreal start, Exec depts are still working to draft Programme for Government outcomes agreed in… 2016. From those long forgotten days *when the UK was still a member of the EU*

The funding is flat as has been said, but it will rise as the Treasury formally agree to carry forward and there may be other Barnett consequentials announced in the March Budget. But even if the funding rises and even if we manage to get more of this year’s cash out the door…

There is a terrible combination of Whitehall indifference and skewed rules that only serve to undermine good devolved government here. But of course the antics and shirt termism of the two major parties make the problems worse. No way to run a railroad, as the saying goes.