Stormont stalemate: Who’s calling the shots on policy?

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Stormont stalemate: Who's calling the shots on policy?


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With no ministers in place, civil servants have been making the decisions on running public services

Northern Ireland has had no government since January 2017, when a power-sharing deal collapsed.

With no ministers to make decisions affecting every facet of public life, civil servants have had to step up.

They had been taking some major decisions normally reserved for ministers but that all changed following an unprecedented court case.

A judge ruled that the Department for Infrastructure’s permanent secretary did not have the power to give the go-ahead for a controversial waste incinerator plant in County Antrim.

Here’s how that ruling could affect other decisions made by civil servants – as well as those awaiting approval.

The Executive Office (TEO)

One of the most high-profile decisions awaiting approval is making compensation available to victims of historical institutional abuse.

In January 2017, shortly before Stormont collapsed, the inquiry set up to examine allegations of child abuse between 1922 and 1995 ruled that victims should receive financial redress from the NI Executive.

The head of the civil service, David Sterling, has since indicated he was preparing legislation to deal with it, but in December he wrote to victims explaining payments would be open to legal challenge without ministerial approval.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley also said it would “constitutionally inappropriate” for the UK government to make the payments.

In April, a victim of historical institutional abuse won the right to a full judicial review of the Northern Ireland secretary and Executive Office’s failure to implement a compensation scheme.

This is expected to be held in September.

Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA)

While there don’t seem to have been any big decisions taken by DAERA’s permanent secretary Denis McMahon since Stormont collapsed, there are several areas the department says it can’t act on without a minister to give the OK.

A public consultation to inform a strategy to eradicate bovine TB ended in February but any new policy would need a minister to sign off on it.

The department has also been drawing up a plan to deal with a giant illegal dump near Londonderry, which will require significant spend, but it is also likely to be subject to ministerial approval.

Department for Communities (DfC)

In April, DfC took the decision to ring fence substantial extra funding for the Ulster Orchestra and Belfast’s MAC in 2017/18 and 2018/19.

While this was a funding decision rather than a policy move, in the context of a small arts budget, it was a major decision that would normally have been taken by a minister.

On the other hand, the department says it has been unable to take decisions on issues that would require a change in departmental policy – with one recent example being a decision in the rest of the UK to reduce the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) to £2.

DfC said it would be for a devolved minister to make that call.

It is understood a number of appointments to public bodies cannot be signed off without ministerial approval either.

The department also began a public consultation proposing changes to Stormont’s affordable warmth scheme last November – the consultation has since ended but it cannot progress without a minister’s say-so.

Department for the Economy (DfE)

University tuition fees is a hot topic that has been the remit of DfE for several years, with both Ulster University and Queen’s University lobbying for a rise in fees as part of their campaign for more sustainable university funding.

It is a decision, however, that civil servants are reluctant to take, meaning it probably won’t be looked at until a minister is back in place.

Department of Education (DoE)

DoE’s permanent secretary Derek Baker has taken a number of decisions around school mergers and closures – usually a task for Stormont’s education minister.

Very few are contentious, but it’s not clear whether Mr Baker will want to take further decisions that could spark a backlash, if he may not actually be empowered to do so.

This could include a proposal suggested earlier this year by the Education Authority to close and merge seven special needs schools in Belfast.

Another decision Mr Baker would be unlikely to sign off on would be the ending of free school transport, which is something that has been raised by the Education Authority since Stormont collapsed, as a way of saving money.

The department has also made decisions on maintaining some threatened schemes in the absence of a minister – will it feel it can no longer do this?

Department of Health (DoH)

One of the busiest briefs on the hill, there are a number of decisions that the department says it cannot take without the authority of a minister.

BBC News NI understands it cannot proceed with the following issues until Stormont is restored:

  • Reconfiguration of stroke services
  • Reconfiguration of Emergency Departments in hospitals
  • Reform of adult social care policy
  • Location of elective care centres under Bengoa reforms (the 10-year plan to reshape Northern Ireland’s health care system)

A decision taken in the rest of the UK to give NHS staff a 6.5% pay rise cannot be implemented here either – the department said it was a devolved matter.

Department for Infrastructure (DfI)

This department has already hit the headlines because of the Hightown incinerator case, but civil servants within DfI may now be reluctant to take decisions on other issues sitting in their in-tray.

The department’s decision to approve the £200m cross-border energy project – the north-south interconnector – in January, is already facing a legal challenge.

Other decisions awaiting approval – that may now not go ahead without a minister to sign off on them – include:

The Institute of Directors has said more than £1bn worth of infrastructure projects are at risk due to the political stalemate.

And as the head of the civil service David Sterling warned earlier this year, even signing off road closure orders to allow the North West 200 to take place may be a decision too far for civil servants in DfI to take, meaning that event’s future could be at risk if Stormont remains in limbo.

Department of Justice (DoJ)

It was recently reported that two of Northern Ireland’s most senior prison watchdog roles could be left vacant within months because of the Stormont deadlock.

The chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland – who has also been temporarily overseeing the work of the prisoner ombudsman’s office – is set to leave office in November but a decision on his successor cannot be made without a justice minister in place.

Reforming Northern Ireland’s domestic violence laws also remains a bone of contention for the department – prior to Stormont’s collapse the then-justice minister Claire Sugden was working on such legislation, but when Stormont collapsed, the bill did too.

Any future attempt to change the law would need to be brought to the assembly by a minister.

The department has taken some decisions in the absence of a minister – including a review of serious sex offences. That would not have been deemed a major policy decision, or one that would face criticism from the public.

But the effect of Monday’s ruling is that the line on what constitutes a major policy decision has become more blurred than ever.

Civil servants will continue to do their jobs, but they’ll be keeping an eye on the political parties and the courts to see if anything changes.



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