Derry City and Strabane District Council Alderman Derek Hussey has expressed concern that the current Budget settlement issued by the Finance Minister on behalf of the Stormont Executive may fail Northern Ireland’s pressing economic challenges.
The Castlederg based Ulster Unionist Councillor said: “The Stormont Budget for the 2016/17 financial year was recently issued by the Northern Ireland Finance Minister through a Written Statement after the Assembly had entered their Christmas Recess.
“These proposals were reported as an agreed one year Budget for 2016/17 even though two of the four Executive parties, SDLP and Alliance, instantly rejected it.
“The Budget proposals will probably be debated and voted on after the Christmas Recess in January. However, with DUP and Sinn Féin having agreed the financial proposals, it is highly unlikely that any changes will be made to this latest DUP/Sinn Féin agreement and that the debate will be one of minimum discussion and no consultation.
“I am concerned that the new (post Assembly election) Department of the Economy does not feature highly in the Finance Minister’s financial statement, bereft of detail as it is, and that the overall 2016/17 Budget may prove inadequate for the wider economy of Northern Ireland in general and for our North West Region in particular. As it stands, I do not detect a defined Economic Vision for Northern Ireland in present DUP/Sinn Féin proposals.
“In the area of Apprenticeships, for example, this past 4 years has seen a significant decline both in investment and participation.
“The budget and supported high quality apprenticeships, those that equip participants with the skills that employers will be and are crying out for, have collapsed by around 40 per cent in both cases all within a context of both high Youth Unemployment and high Economic Inactivity - Funding has fallen from £31,042,331 in 2011/2012 to £18,291,355 by 2014/15 (-41+%) with the number of participant apprentices plummeting from 10,668 to 6586 during the same four year period (-38+%).
“Such figures suggest a looming skills deficit unless there is a radical rethink in this and other areas of the economy by our Executive. Corporation Tax is increasingly quoted as the ‘magic bullet’ for our economy but it is not enough on its own. Skills and training, such as those obtained via Apprenticeships, are needed to prepare a workforce that is ready to take up employment and benefit from potential foreign direct investment.”
Alderman Hussey concluded by adding: “The Stormont Executive must not continue to side step major economic challenges in terms of Youth Unemployment, Economic Inactivity, over reliance on Welfare and much needed investment in skills and training both for our younger citizens and those seeking to retrain to find alternative employment.
“An allocation of £5 million to the soon to be Department for the Economy for the ‘Skills agenda’ is clearly inadequate at a time when the Executive should be gearing the Northern Ireland economy up for the opportunities and challenges facing us with the prospect of a reduction in the rate of Corporation Tax from April 2018.”