The Assembly voted in support of Finance Minister Peter Robinson’s proposal that domestic rates will remain at their current level for a three-year period and the increase in the non-domestic regional rate will be pegged to the rate of inflation, which currently stands at 2.7%.
This decision received very little coverage. These measures represent the Executive’s sole revenue raising powers. The domestic Regional Rate will contribute 2.8% of public expenditure in Northern Ireland and the non-domestic Regional Rate will contribute 3.1 % - the remainder comes in the block grant from Westminster.
The next time there is a ‘crisis’ in the health service or in another element of the public services, it remains to be seen whether journalists will ask Mr Robinson and his Executive colleague if they ought to have increased these rates rather more. Only when Ministers are defending their budgetary decisions, rather than blaming Westminster or their predecessors, will politics in Northern Ireland begin to be democratic and accountable. In other words – the Executive could have raised more money but chose not to.
The various Private Members’ Motions and Adjournment debates all passed off as usual with little controversy and considerable mutual backslapping. There was a tenser note in the air when the Education Minister Caitriona Ruane discussed her Area-based planning proposals for schools with the Assembly, but by and large it was a quiet week in the Assembly with the big political story of Paisley’s resignation announcement attracting everyone’s attentions.