Ulster Unionist Leader Robin Swann MLA has warned that frontline DAERA services are likely to be affected after the Department was allocated a budget of almost £20m smaller than what it needs.
Mr Swann said it has long known that Northern Ireland’s public finances have been ‘in a complete mess’.
“Recently my office wrote to officials at the very top of the Department of Finance asking what each Executive Department in Northern Ireland absolutely needed just to keep delivering the same range and standard of service,” said Mr Swann.
“In their response I was informed that the assessed revenue requirement for DAERA for 2019/20 was £222.7m.
“In the budget presented to Parliament this week, however, by the Secretary of State, only £203.1m non-ringfenced revenue has been allocated. That represents an almost £20m, or 10%, shortfall of what is generally accepted that DAERA requires.
“Whilst I appreciate that there are pressures across all of Northern Ireland’s public finances, we mustn’t forget that DAERA has already been subject to major spending reductions and saving measures in recent years.
“Even before this most recent Budget shortfall, DAERA had been previously warning that frontline staff numbers may have to be reduced, existing rural development and environmental programmes would be further scaled back, and work on TB eradication deferred.
“Already DAERA were looking at slashing the compensation rates paid for TB. Even calls for farmers to be charged for TB testing are badly misplaced as we just know that any money generated will not be spent on measures aimed at tackling the disease. Instead, these new charges would be used to try to fill other black holes and as a result central DAERA budgets would likely be even smaller in years to come as farmers end up paying for more and more themselves.
“Only a few weeks ago I highlighted just how badly farmers in severely disadvantaged areas have been let down by the removal of hill payments. Just a couple of years ago that scheme was attracting 10,000 applications, with £20m being paid out annually which represented financial support for a massive area of over 350,000ha.
“Yet even though 40% of the overall cost came from local funds, removing that support has done nothing whatsoever to relax the pressure on the DAERA budget and the NIO and Department of Finance continue to underfund the Department. It just goes to show that the hill money should never have been removed in the first place. I suspect if DAERA had retained them then at least some of the money would have been secured each year.
“It also looks almost certain now that the budget for the Farm Business Investment Scheme will be far lower that the anticipated share of the overall £250m package previously agreed to. It now appears inevitable that the final expenditure will be much closer to £40m for the foreseeable future - a ridiculous outcome compared to what farmers were initially promised.”