The Democratic Unionist Party has downplayed suggestions by Chris Heaton-Harris that negotiations on restoring the Northern Ireland Executive are nearing a result, according to the News Letter.
Carla Lockhart, a DUP MP, reiterated her party’s position that there is no “solid basis” for returning to power sharing so long as there remains a trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader, has also said that whilst progress was being made, he couldn’t give any timeline as to when the current impasse would be resolved.
This follows Heaton-Harris’ remarks at a recent evidence session of the Northern Ireland Select Committee. Where in the Northern Irish Secretary also indicated that he was not minded to try and re-open the Belfast Agreement’s provisions around power-sharing.
Under the 1998 settlement, the devolved executive at Stormont depends on active participation from both unionist and nationalist parties, so that the Province cannot end up being governed exclusively by one side of the other. Sinn Féin has over the past decade used this to bring down the Northern Irish government, over issues such as welfare cuts, several times.
However, it seems to only have been since the veto was wielded by unionists that there have been sustained calls in some quarters for the end of power sharing. Funny that.
In other Ulster news, several trades unions have claimed that cuts overseen by Heaton-Harris are the reason they’re threatening Northern Ireland with a bus and rail strike.
The Auditor General for Scotland has warned that the Scottish Government must deliver “significant” reforms to the public sector, and quickly, if it is to have any hope of balancing the country’s books. The Herald reports:
“He said the Government’s own projections already forecast a £1billion budget shortfall next year, rising to £1.9bn in 2027/28. However the recent wave of large pay increases across the public sector driven by a 30-year high in inflation meant the problems could become more severe without reform.
“The Government’s workforce costs grew by 28 per cent between 2018/19 and 2021/22, and if that continues, wage bills alone will be more than £1.7bn above what is planned by 2027/28.”
Unsurprisingly, since devolution the size of the Scottish public sector has ballooned, with the Conservatives all but formally locked out of power and Labour and the SNP competing on spending for control of a government which does not have to raise all its own funding.
The Scottish Conservatives have warned of a “black hole” in the Scottish Government’s books and the Auditor General’s analysis seems to back that up: he warns that the Nationalists’ current approach of merely slowing the growth of the public sector, rather than making actual cuts, is “not up to the task, according to the Herald.
Meanwhile experts have branded the Scottish Government’s latest, now-abandoned reforms to council tax a “desperate search for cash”, and claimed that the issue has been mishandled north of the border for over thirty years.
Humza Yousaf had been planning on increasing the relative tax rates on property bands E to H. However, the issue was exploited “ruthlessly” by Labour in the Rutherglen by-election, and the proposal has now been shelved.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh has claimed that fixing council tax is impossible without a full revaluation:
“Rather than go ahead with changing the multipliers, the Scottish Government should commission a survey to establish just how inaccurate the 1991 banding now is, paying attention to the expectation that there will be geographic differences in house price changes as well as relative price changes by property type.”
In fairness to the First Minister nobody, anywhere, wants to do a full council tax revaluation; barring some major upheaval we will probably be using the 1991 valuations until the heat death of the universe.
But since coming to office in 2007 the SNP have nonetheless made a rod for their own back on the issue. Under Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, the Nationalists repeatedly froze council tax, topping up local authority funds with grants from the centre – which the Scottish Government could control.
This power grab caused a long-running conflict between the Scottish Government and COSLA, the Scottish local authority body. But it also left Holyrood on the hook for an ever-increasing share of local financing, and it is now proving very hard to stand councils on their own feet again.