Permanent secretaries in the Northern Ireland Civil Service have been told to come up with ways to generate revenue for their departments as they face budget cuts in the absence of a functioning executive.
Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has instructed NICS perm secs to look at how measures including raising tuition fees or charging for at-home social-care services or drug prescriptions could help to make up a funding shortfall in the budget he put forward last month.
They should provide advice on how each of the measures could “help to generate more income for Northern Ireland departments or indeed alleviate the level of public subsidies you historically provide for public services”, he said.
He also requested they examine the potential impact of raising MOT and water charges; cutting back on concessionary fares schemes, which provide free or discounted travel on public transport for older and disabled people; and scrapping a ban on public hospital parking charges, which was set to come into force next year.
“For each of the measures listed and anything further you might come up with, I am interested firstly in a headline assessment, which would comprise an outline of the current arrangements, the range of policy and delivery options that could be reasonably considered, an overview of estimated potential revenue generated or funding saved, and delivery timescales for implementation,” he said.
“I would then like some fuller information on each one as per the direction – including forecast revenue and timelines for implementation, legislative requirements secondary, primary etc – which of course will take more time.”
Heaton-Hearris added: “I am also very aware that you are the experts and I would like advice from you on any further budget sustainability options we have not listed, no matter how big or small, that you have considered, are considering, or judge to be reasonably deliverable.”
His letter comes weeks after the Westminster government tabled a budget for Northern Ireland – in the absence of a functioning executive – that could leave civil servants responsible for cutting their budgets by 10%.
NICS head Jayne Brady said last month that the budget had left civil servants in an “invidious” position because making the spending decisions required to meet it would effectively “turn civil servants into ministers”.
In a letter to Stormont party leaders, Brady said she believed the budget would “inevitably cause enduring harm to public service delivery, society and the economy”.
The message was part of a plea for political leaders to get around the table and address the “governance gap” facing the nation.
In a statement published alongside his letter, Heaton-Harris said he wanted to see a return to power sharing in Northern Ireland, which most recently collapsed last year.
“Public finances in Northern Ireland are not currently on a sustainable footing,” he said.
“The UK government stands ready to work with a restored executive, but we have a responsibility to ensure the delivery of public services and management of public funds can continue in its absence.
“I remain firmly of the view that the right people to take these decisions are locally elected and accountable ministers sitting in a fully functioning devolved government.
“I once again call on the Executive to get back up and running so that they can progress much needed and long promised public service transformation and address the systemic issues that are facing public services in NI.
“Simply spending more is not the answer to transforming NI’s public services and does not serve the best interests of the people of NI.”
Perm secs have been given until 30 June to share their initial findings with the Northern Ireland Office, to be followed up by a fuller return by the end of July.
“I am requesting this fuller work be started now to avoid an overly quick turnaround once we have the first batch of information and advice back at the end of June,” Heaton-Harris said.
The minister said he would follow up with directions on what to do next “as quickly as possible”.