AS the NI Assembly and local government elections draws near and the Draft Budget is still lying on the operating table, the South Down MP and Party Leader Margaret Ritchie MLA said that the “lazy and unimaginative’” DUP/Sinn Fein draft Budget needed to be “radically improved” before the SDLP could support it.
Ms Ritchie argued in the party’s response to budget consultation that the Draft Budget encompassing over £4 billion of cuts was simply not fit for purpose.
She said, “Devolution was supposed to make a difference – but the DUP/Sinn Fein draft Budget we have before us simply does not address the real needs of the North. It is indistinguishable from the Budget that would have been handed down under Direct Rule. There is no real attempt to mitigate the Tory cuts.
“The DUP and Sinn Fein must recognise that our top priority has to be economic development and jobs, alongside protection of vulnerable households and front-line services. We are absolutely duty-bound to use the Budget, our only real economic lever, to rebalance and stimulate the economy with a focus on job creation. I don’t believe there has been any real effort to do this.
“In the “Partnership and Economic Recovery” document, we have set out in considerable detail what can be done with the Budget to make it a driver of growth and jobs.
“Instead of persisting with their cosy consensus on cuts, the DUP and Sinn Fein must make the fundamental Budget improvements,” said Ms Ritchie. “Their draft budget is not fit for purpose. It lacks vision, strategy and a programme for Government.”
“However, the budget does meet some basic DUP requirements in that it leaves the Ulster Unionist Ministries with most unreasonable settlements in their respective departments of health and education. Predictably when faced with a choice of doing the right thing or shafting their political opponents – the DUP chooses the latter course.
“And they have sold £4 billion of cuts to the self-styled champions of equality Sinn Féin who have happily swallowed the prospect of doubling student fees which will make third level education the preserve of the rich. This has been achieved through the trusty tactic of giving Sinn Féin something for themselves alone.
“The £80 million slush fund known as the Social Investment Fund is the gift that binds Sinn Féin into the consensus of cuts. Sinn Fein does not know what to do with the money except that they intend to give it to their friends. And the DUP does not really care what they do with it. It was simply a price they had to pay.
“Every penny earmarked for that slush fund should be reallocated to support legitimate programmes that will protect vulnerable households and frontline services while stimulating the economy with an emphasis on job creation.”
“Ms Richie says that Sinn Féin has abandoned the poor in the North while attacking the wealth creators in the South. They are green Tories in the North and Communist Reds in the South.
“The principles behind this Budget should also have included rebalancing the Economy between public and private sector, a focus in particular on job creation in the Construction and Tourism sectors, and a genuine attempt to find new sources of revenue and capital
“There is still time to get this budget right. Although The DUP and Sinn Fein have attacked the SDLP for trying to change the Budget we believe it is not only our right but our duty. The SDLP have set out in unprecedented detail what needs to change make this budget fit for purpose.
“We call on the DUP and Sinn Fein to make the changes to produce a Budget that we can support,” she said.
As the row over the budget rumbles on, the economy and jobs along with health, education, high fuel costs, will almost certainly be on top of the key election issues discussed at the hustings during the coming elections.