‘We had £334m we wanted to get to people’

Conor Murphy says it has been ‘hugely frustrating’ not to be able to apportion £334m in unallocated spending to tackle the cost of living and health crises due to the Executive’s premature collapse.

The Finance Minister admits his hands have been tied in terms of distributing extra funding. He said it won’t be until after the Assembly election and the formation of a new Executive that additional spending can be agreed.

He made the comments during a visit to Derry to engage with local businesses. He acknowledged that at the moment he and other ministers have limited scope for manoeuvre.

“It is hugely frustrating. Not only did we want to get a budget set for the three years to tackle the big issues in health - cancer treatment, waiting lists, mental health strategies and the transformation of health which are absolutely necessary - but we had an additional £334m we wanted to get directly out to people who were suffering,” he told the ‘Journal’.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy

The premature collapse of the Executive made this an impossibility, he says.

“I tried to find ways to allocate that money. I got legal advice. I tried to push the boat out and see if we could do anything with it. I was told very clearly we can’t. It needs Executive agreement. So we need the Executive in place on the other side of this election.”

Mr. Murphy says the Executive has acted on the cost of living crisis and wants to do more. However, the vast majority of fiscal and monetary levers are controlled by London, he points out.

“That’s why we were pressing for the Chancellor [Rishi Sunak] in his Statement, firstly, to do things like reducing VAT on fuel, on heating bills, to reduce the income they take from fuel. They only reduced it to five pence a litre. Five pence a litre doesn’t cut it when prices are going up 20p to 30p a litre,” he said.

The Finance Minister describes Mr. Sunak’s decision to hike national insurance contributions by 1.25 percentage points as an actively regressive step.

“They are actually putting additional pressure on top of the rising costs hitting families. It’s rising taxation on working families as well.There was an opportunity for the Chancellor to take several initiatives. They are sitting on a sizeable war chest of funds they are keeping for the next election. He had an opportunity to intervene now and try and assist people.”

Although real fiscal power lies in London Mr. Murphy insists the Executive can do more to help. That’s why it is imperative an Executive is formed immediately after the poll next month, he says.

“We have already put in a home-heating support programme that Deirdre Hargey [Communities Minister] ran. We managed to put £55m into that before Christmas. That paid up to about 275,000 homes across the north £200 support for their heating bills.

“With the way bills have been going up that is increasingly becoming a bigger challenge. So we want an Executive in place. We have a third of a billion pounds to allocate - additional money - and we want to get that in to immediately support people in their everyday challenges. We want to expand that [home-heating] scheme to ensure it’s not just people on benefits - it’s the working poor, it’s people who are on tax credits - that can avail of that but also look at a range of other schemes to try and assist people and reduce the burden of costs.”

Taking a longer term and more strategic view of the economic future of Derry Mr. Murphy said he is keen to progress ‘big ticket’ items seen as essential to the future development of the north west.

“We have said that we will put in place a taskforce to ensure that Magee is heading towards the 10,000 student mark that the people here want to see and that we make sure that all the departments are working together to achieve that outcome.

“That was a ‘New Decade, New Approach’ (NDNA) commitment. It’s moving now over the next couple of years towards 6,000 students but we need to make sure that there are strategies in place to get it up to 10,000 as well. We need to make sure that the Medical School continues to develop and gets the necessary financial support.”

Mr. Murphy says supporting small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) is also essential if Derry is to thrive.

“We need to ensure that our business organisations like Invest NI and others are focused on the north west and the potential here and that we are looking at supporting small local enterprises because that’s the backbone of our economy. It is the greatest employer of people right across the north but particularly here in the north west.”

Mr. Murphy recently confirmed that the City Deal is unlikely to be signed until the spring of 2023, However, the investment package has a cast iron guarantee, he says.

“It takes a lot of diligence to work through the individual projects and make sure they stack up. There has been such volatility in terms of construction costs and energy costs and prices are fluctuating and you need to make sure that those details are pinned down but the actual money is secured. It was previously agreed by the Executive.

“There have been contributions from the British government that have been previously agreed so that is all secured. Our ability to strike a budget doesn’t impact on that because that’s ring-fenced money.”