Stormont will have to look at income generation to tackle cash crisis – Benn

The Stormont powersharing Executive will have to look at raising its own revenue to help deal with public sector budget pressures, new Northern Ireland Secretary Hilary Benn has said.

In his first visit to the region since taking up office, Mr Benn said Stormont has historically “not been as good as it might be in income generation”.

He also said that a priority had to be given to ensuring that the current budget was being used in the most effective way, adding there is an urgent need for public sector reform.

Mr Benn visited St George’s Market in Belfast on Sunday morning where he spoke to traders and members of the public.

If followed meetings that he had in Hillsborough Castle in Co Down on Saturday evening with the main Stormont political parties.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, said she made the case for “fair funding” for public services during her meeting.

Speaking to the media, Mr Benn pointed out that public spending in Northern Ireland is higher than in England.

New Northern Ireland Secretary visits Belfast
Northern Ireland Secretary Hilary Benn speaks with a market trader (Niall Carson/PA)

The region receives about £124 per head for every £100 per head spent in England.

Mr Benn said: “Those (funding) discussions about the future will continue and there will be additional money when the main estimates are published which I anticipate will be in the near future.

“But I would also say this. There is a question for the Executive about how the money is spent.

“All public bodies, governments, institutions have to look at what they’ve got coming in, what’s going out and how they can make the most effective use of that.

“Historically, government in Northern Ireland has not been as good as it might be in income generation.

“That is something the Executive is going to have to look at.”

General Election 2024
Hilary Benn meeting First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly at Hillsborough Caste on Saturday (Kelvin Boyes/PA)

Mr Benn added: “Through the process of reform which we are very keen to assist with…that is also a path to a better future because if there ways in which the money which is currently being allocated, which is more than the constituency that I represent in Leeds (receives), using it most effectively to get the best public services should be an urgent priority for all of us.”

The Northern Ireland Secretary said: “The really urgent task for now is public services, the longest waiting lists in the whole of the United Kingdom.

“This was an election in which people voted in all parts of the United Kingdom for change and that is why I am so keen to work with the Executive.

“They have a big responsibility to undertake public service reform because with more funding per head than say my constituents receive, Northern Ireland has the worst waiting lists in the whole of the UK.

“I think everybody recognises there is a need for reform.

“We stand ready to give advice and expertise and support because it is a very big task but it is an urgent one for the people of Northern Ireland.”

Speaking following her meeting with Mr Benn on Saturday, Ms O’Neill said: “We strongly made the case for fair funding to be provided urgently for health, education and public services here.

“The cuts our people and public services have endured under the Tories must end now.”

Mr Benn said it was a “great privilege and an honour” to be appointed Northern Ireland Secretary.

He said: “I was very keen to come here as soon as possible and that is why I arrived yesterday.

“I am determined that we are going to build a new relationship with the parties in Northern Ireland.

“I was a very strong supporter of the restoration of the (Stormont) institutions because Northern Ireland needs its government to function above all in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland who, in recent years, have been without a government for far too long.

“I am greatly encouraged by the way in which the Executive has started its work.”