Easy Rider: Public Finance

Posted on September 22, 2009 · Posted in Public Finance

If there is such a thing as a ‘normal’ finance minister, then Sammy Wilson is definitely not it. Informal, politically incorrect and with an approachability that is decidedly unusual, Northern Ireland’s finance minister is not the model of a modern politician.

‘Sammy’, as he is almost universally known, is a man apart. Visitors to the chancellor in Whitehall are unlikely to be given directions by security staff to go to see ‘Ally’. Yet, when I arrive at the Stormont estate and explain I have a meeting with Mr Wilson, the security man seems genuinely nonplussed for a moment. ‘Oh, you mean Sammy,’ he says.

Nor does the striking difference that is Sammy Wilson end there. Walking into the standard comfortable ministerial office, one thing is markedly unique. The white and blue biker’s helmet sits proud on the minister’s desk.

This is no affectation – Wilson is unashamedly a motorcycle enthusiast. On the day of the interview, the sun was shining brightly and he jumped on a Yamaha 1300 to ride to his office. This probably explains why, unusually for a minister, he is on time for the interview – the biker who escaped the traffic jams.

Wilson collects bikes and has four: as well as the Yamaha, he owns a Harley Davidson and two other American bikes. As the Assembly member for Antrim, a constituency that includes some of the world’s most beautiful coastal roads, he rides them regularly. The Democratic Unionist minister reports that he actually enjoys being contacted by farmers in the deepest parts of his constituency with agricultural grievances. It is a great excuse to ride over the mountain roads to meet them.

But when Wilson is not riding one of his bikes, building a dry stone wall in his garden or carrying out his dual roles as MP and Member of the Legislative Assembly, he has, for the past two months, also been Northern Ireland’s finance minister. 

‘It’s an interesting and challenging one,’ says Wilson of his new role. ‘It probably couldn’t have come at a worse time, mind you. Obviously, things are not going to be as easy. There’s not the huge amounts of money being thrown at the public sector now that you would have had in the past.’

But it would be wrong, he insists, to assume there must be a non-political and managerial response. ‘If anything, you’ve got to concentrate more on the priorities,’ he says. That means making hard choices and cuts.

Wilson avoids specifying where he believes the cuts should fall. He stresses that he wants his ministerial colleagues to manage their budgets properly and reach their own decisions through the Northern Ireland Executive about what has to be closed, slimmed down or outsourced – and without him being blamed for suggesting savings.

Finding an approach to budget management is particularly difficult in Northern Ireland because there are four (mutually hostile) political parties in government.  Ministers have no sense of collective decision-making, or collective responsibility.  But Wilson stresses that the emphasis in the Programme for Government – agreed by all the parties – is on growing the economy. On that basis, he insists, developing an enterprise economy is the first priority and departments must accept this.

‘That has become an even greater priority than it has in the past,’ says Wilson. ‘You have got to rely more on trying to grow the private sector. It has got to be done with a greater degree of urgency now than it would have been in the past, when you could have eased your way into redistribution of resources.’

This does not always need additional financial commitments and might just require changing the way government services are provided, he believes. He cites reforming the Planning Service to make it more responsive – a responsibility of his when environment minister. Similarly, he argues, new procurement frameworks make it easier to tender for multiple call-offs – to the benefit of the contractors and government.

Contracting with the private sector looks likely to be a recurrent concern for the Executive in the future, with a probable increase in outsourcing as financial support from London falls. ‘I don’t want to speculate what the cut is going to be,’ he stresses. But, recognising that there will be reduced funding, now is the time to prepare for this.

‘One of the things we are going to have to look at is: are there different ways of doing things? Are there things we are doing in the public sector that we shouldn’t be doing at all?’ says Wilson. He favours bold decisions, rather than ‘salami slicing’, which reduces the capacity and capability of the public sector. 

‘You have got to say what is the core business of this department and concentrate on that core business. That might well mean that we stop doing certain things and outsource others.’ But, he adds, that does not mean that all back-office services will be ripe for outsourcing.  This needs to be evaluated according to the specific situation.

Budget pressures include the swine flu pandemic, which will cost about £70m to £100m, and equal pay for lower grades in the civil service. Wilson declines to cost this as he is currently in negotiation with the unions, but reports ­estimate it at £100m.

One unintended plus, says Wilson, is the collapse of the tendering for the sale and lease back of civil service accommodation. The fall in property values, plus the merger of the two prime tenderers, caused the programme to be halted. 

But, Wilson suggests, the need to fundamentally review what Stormont needs to provide and what should be outsourced means that when the ­exercise is restarted it can be based on the needs of a slimmed-down administration.

Wilson repeatedly stresses that he is new in post and still getting to grips with his portfolio.  But it is clear that he is having fun. ‘I enjoy the cut and thrust of it,’ he says, of appearing before the ­Assembly’s finance committee.

He yearns a bit for his previous environmental role, though. ‘You got the chance to annoy the Green Party, with all the stuff on climate change, attack their sacred cows,’ he says.  ‘So I miss that part of it.’  Politically incorrect?  You bet.