Devolution will never work without financial responsibility

When you drive a rental or a courtesy car, you are inclined to test it out a bit and not to worry too much about parking close to other vehicles. When you live in rented accommodation you are inclined to make do and mend and maybe not to worry too much about the gum down the side of the sofa. It is human instinct – we take less care of things if they are not specifically our own.

On a completely different point, last week it was revealed that Scotland had crashed down the educational rankings, was not ready to take on administration of welfare, and then had its Transport Minister caught driving without insurance. This follows on from planning scandals, stories of horrific policing incompetence, and a comparative decline in the Health budget.

That is before we get to Northern Ireland almost literally burning £400 million, sending its chief legal adviser to London to argue a case no one had agreed upon, and hiding key reports while running from independent reviews.

In common here we have Ministers thinking they are untouchable, a lack of clarity about practical outcomes to theoretical policies, monitoring failures, and perhaps most obviously of all a cavalier attitude to public money.

Which brings us back to our courtesy car and our rented furniture. The issue here is that ultimately the devolved powers that be think, for the most part at least, they are spending other people’s money – because 94% of it (in Northern Ireland’s case anyway) comes from the UK Treasury. What is effectively “English” money can be doled out carelessly, without any real interest in outcomes, by Ministers who know no one will mind because it isn’t their money anyway.

This is the farce inherent in the system. Financial accountability lies at a completely different level from political power. Indeed, it has been quite clearly shown that Northern Ireland would not have lost £400m on a flawed programme under Direct Rule – because Direct Rule Ministers have a much greater sense that political and financial responsibility go hand in hand.

Until financial responsibility is devolved and Scotland and Northern Ireland raise their own revenue to fund their own public services, at least in large part, this type of frankly dreadful government an der arch Ministerial hypocrisy will remain the norm.

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