Northern Ireland’s top civil servant warns of ‘unavoidable’ overspend

Jayne Brady says more than £1bn of funding pressures remain despite challenging cuts overseen by officials
Jayne Brady

By Jim Dunton

11 Jul 2023

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has warned the UK government that Northern Irish departments are facing an overspend  that is “now unavoidable” amid the ongoing power vacuum at Stormont.

Jayne Brady said civil servants tasked with making spending decisions in the absence of an executive had made £1bn of “challenging” budget cuts since Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris unveiled their £14.2bn budget for 2023-24 at the end of April.

In a letter to Heaton-Harris sent last week, she said Northern Ireland’s departments had “reached the limit” of what could be delivered with unfunded pay pressures of £571m remaining and outstanding decisions on other pressures – valued at £437m – still to be taken.

The letter, which was seen by the BBC,  said the remaining financial gap was the result of legal issues rather than any “unwillingness” to act on the part of senior civil servants.

She said that even if an executive returned this year, Northern Ireland was “beyond the point” where decisions to prevent a 2023-24 overspend could be taken.

Brady told Heaton-Harris she believed the process should “now move into a different and more political phase of engagement” involving the UK government. She concluded there was a “pressing need” to mitigate the damage of the latest budget cuts and to stabilise public services.

Heaton-Harris referred to Brady’s letter in a House of Commons debate on the Northern Ireland Budget (No.2) Bill last night.

The secretary of state said he agreed “in a way” with Brady’s call for a new phase of political activity.

“But if that is to happen, all the parties must confront hard choices and ensure stability, rather than regular political crisis,” he said.

Heaton-Harris said the people of Northern Ireland needed to impress the importance of returning to Stormont and forming an executive on their politicians.

“The difficulties that Northern Ireland departments face are a result of tough decisions not having been taken by elected representatives in Northern Ireland, not just this year, but over successive years,” he said.

“Funding alone will not solve the issues; that will require strong, responsible leadership, backed by a stable, devolved government.

“We need the executive back, so that they can progress much-needed and long-promised public service transformation.”

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