Sinn Fein backs fantasy budget to ease crisis

The Republicans have elected to endorse Northern Ireland’s “fantasy” budgets, in order to try to buy time to secure a deal on the future of welfare reform, according to the Belfast Telegraph.

Arlene Foster MLA, a Democratic Unionist and Finance Minister in the province’s all-party administration, has tabled budgets which presuppose that such a deal had been secured.

They can thus plot spending without factoring in the fresh tranche of Treasury fines that Stormont is set to incur, which add up to £604 million.

Last week George Osborne, the Chancellor, singled out Sinn Fein and the SDLP, the smaller and more moderate nationalist party, for criticism in the House of Commons.

Whilst the new budgets won’t substitute for a solution, their passage will grant access to Treasury finance for a little longer, giving the Ulster parties a little breathing room.

This is simply the latest development in a long-running political battle over the Coalition’s welfare reforms, which Sinn Fein are determined to block in Northern Ireland.

They have brought the devolved settlement to the brink of collapse on a couple of occasions so far in the course of that fight but Charlie Flanagan, the Foreign Affairs Minister of the Republic of Ireland, still fears that Stormont may fall.

Welsh doctors report being bullied for racing safety concerns

Over third of Welsh doctors report facing “bullying or harassment” after racing safety concerns in the Welsh NHS, according to the BBC.

A survey was sent to 3,000 staff, of whom 500 responded. Of these, 60 per cent claimed to have raised safety concerns in the past three months, and 60 per cent of those reporting suffering as a consequence, whilst 40 per cent alleged that no action was taken in response to their worries.

The Welsh BMA claim that the survey is further proof that the health service is overstretched, with many problems attributed to overworked staff or unfilled vacancies.

Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, and his administration have taken several political hits on account of the Welsh NHS’ increasingly dire record, with the Conservatives leading on the issue in last month’s general election and snatching two seats from Labour.

Scottish police to sell up to a quarter of property portfolio

The Herald reports that scores of Scottish police stations are to be downsized or merged with other council offices.

The plans, being drawn up by Scotland’s single, unified police force, are intended to save “millions of pounds a year.”

They follow a review by Police Scotland of the assets they inherited in 2013 from the old, pre-merger regional police services, and some officials estimate that up to a quarter of Scottish police floorspace could be shed.

Sir Stephen House, the chief constable, has warned that “extreme measures” are needed to plug the hole in police finances but there are apparently concerns that a reduced presence may reflect, or at least signal, reduced interest in remote areas.

Opposition may stymie Welsh council reform

The radical overhaul of Welsh local government, which I mentioned in last week’s column, may meet too much opposition to go ahead despite the support of a determined minister.

According to Martin Shipton of Wales Online, a coalition of the two main opposition parties and vested interests in local government are lining up against proposals by Leighton Andrews, the Public Services Minister, to dramatically cut the number of local authorities in Wales.

He is apparently frustrated that the existing patchwork of smaller councils have failed to make progress towards pooling resources.

The Welsh Conservatives have criticised a move back towards the pre-1996 county councils as resurrecting “a structure long confined to the history books”, and Plaid Cymru have criticised the focus on redrawing boundaries.

Meanwhile, a Labour AM has warned that merging councils could wreak havoc on council tax bills, as neighbouring councils can have rates that vary by hundreds of pounds.

If Andrews is to drive through these measures, he will need to remain in post beyond next year’s Assembly election.

Stormont less transparent than under direct rule

The News Letter reports that a document quietly signed off by the First Minister of Northern Ireland and his deputy concedes that provincial government is now less transparent than was direct rule from London.

Apparently the Executive now regularly breaks the law on response times for freedom of information requests. The number of requests refused outright has doubled since 2006 whilst the proportion of those answered in full has fallen from 80 per cent to 67.

Meanwhile only 73 per cent of FoI requests are now processed within legal time limits – down from 93.5 in 2006 – and the trend suggests further decline.

The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) has apparently become much less ostentatious about the release of its annual freedom of information reports.

However, the paper did not find the same story in all departments. Two run by minor parties – UUP-run Regional Development and the Alliance-run Justice – had legal response rates of 96 per cent.