Northern Ireland’s permanent secretaries have been instructed to launch public consultations on ways to raise revenue for their departments to make up for a budget shortfall.
In June, Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told top officials in the Northern Ireland Civil Service to consider how ideas such as raising tuition fees or charging for drug prescriptions – both of which he confirmed will now be opened up to public feedback – could raise revenue for their departments.
They are two of the nine ideas outlined in a letter, dated yesterday. The list also included the introduction of at-home care charges by the Department of Health or a U-turn on plans to scrap hospital car-parking charges – also ideas Heaton-Harris had suggested in his first letter.
New proposals included the reduction of compensation on the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs’ bovine TB programme, and the introduction of private street fees by the Department for Infrastructure.
Each consultation document will include the relevant department’s assessment of the measure’s feasibility and impact on public finances, along with background information on how the policy compares to the rest of the UK.
The list did not feature all the suggestions Heaton-Harris put to perm secs in June, which included cutting back on concessionary fares schemes providing free or discounted travel on public transport for older and disabled people, and raising MOT fees.
“I am aware that there is considerable expertise on these matters within Northern Ireland, and that many of these measures signal a departure from long-standing policy. For that reason, I am keen to give the public and stakeholders the appropriate opportunity to feed in their views and insight. This is of course also important to ensure statutory requirements around public consultations are met,” Heaton-Harris said.
Departments have been dealing with a cash squeeze since Heaton-Harris announced that Westminster would impose a £14.2bn budget in the absence of a functioning executive – which Northern Ireland has been without since the collapse of power-sharing in February 2022.
Unions said at the time that departments would need to cut 10% of their spending to stay within the budget, while NICS head Jayne Brady said an overspend would be “unavoidable” amid the ongoing power vacuum.
In a letter to Stormont party leaders, Brady also said she believed the budget would “inevitably cause enduring harm to public service delivery, society and the economy”.
In his letter, Heaton-Harris said he had kicked off the work to raise extra cash “in recognition of the parlous state of public finances in Northern Ireland”.
“I understand that several departments have already begun work on revenue generation measures and it is positive to see that progress is already being made in these areas. Where you have identified revenue raising measures that do not require public consultation and that they can progress in the absence of ministers, I would encourage them to do so,” he added.
He said he expected the returning executive will consider the findings of the consultation “and use it, in conjunction with a combination of other actions, to make the necessary decisions to put Northern Ireland’s finances on a sustainable footing”.
He stressed the need to keep up “momentum” on the work and directed perm secs to prepare for the “timely” launch of their consultations.
The Northern Ireland Office will also be reviewing the level of property taxes, known as the domestic and non-domestic regional rate, he said.
Heaton-Harris passed legislation to set the regional rate last year, and said he would have to do the same for 2023-24 if an executive is not formed in time.
“My officials will engage with Department of Finance officials to consider the options as part of this process,” he said.
The Northern Ireland secretary also used the letter to thank perm secs “for everything that you and colleagues across the NI Civil Service” are doing and to reiterate that he is working “to do all I can to restore devolved government as soon as possible”.