NI civil servants to get ‘new clarity’ on powers
Secretary of state says government will bring forward legislation to ensure continuity of appointments and public services as Stormont power vacuum continues
Karen Bradley in Downing Street Credit: PA
Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley has announced that she intends to give civil servants operating within the Stormont power vacuum a new level of clarity on their powers in legislation due to be unveiled in the coming weeks.
The Northern Ireland Civil Service has effectively been running the devolved government following the failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to reach a power-sharing agreement in the wake of elections last year.
In an update to parliament today, Bradley praised “the key role” that the NICS had played since relations between the two parties collapsed in January last year, but recognised that the unprecedented situation officials found themselves in was problematic for the long term.
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One long-running issue facing the NICS has been a court case challenging a decision by the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure to approve a controversial £240m waste incinerator in County Antrim. Opponents, led by campaigner Colin Buick, claimed senior officials had been inconsistent about the decisions they were empowered to take without ministers.
The Court of Appeal in Belfast ruled against the department in July, deciding that legislation required a minister to take decisions of such significance and that civil servants could not substitute for them even if there were no ministers.
In a wide-ranging statement covering her hopes for the return of politically-led devolved decision-making in Northern Ireland, Bradley referred directly to the Buick case – and for the need for civil service appointments to be made without ministerial approval.
She said legislation to be published next month would include measures to ease the difficulties faced by the NICS and would also reduce pay for assembly members to reflect the power vacuum.
“Following the recent decision of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal in the Buick case, I recognise that there is a need to provide reassurance and clarity to both the NICS and the people of Northern Ireland on the mechanisms for the continued delivery of public services,” she said.
“The legislation I intend to introduce after the conference recess will also include provisions to give greater clarity and certainty to enable NI departments to continue to take decisions in Northern Ireland in the public interest and to ensure the continued delivery of public services.
“I intend to consult parties in Northern Ireland over how this might best be done.
“I will also bring forward legislation which will also enable key public appointments to be made in Northern Ireland.”
Bradley said Stormont assembly members – MLAs – would have their salaries cut from £49,500 to £35,888 and then by a further £6,187, while they failed to perform the “full range of their legislative functions”. Those on higher ministerial salaries will also have their pay docked accordingly, while travel expenses will also be curbed.
She emphasised, however, that MLAs' staff would not see their earnings reduced.
In her statement, Bradley said that with new powers coming back from Brussels and flowing to Stormont, Northern Ireland needed an executive in place to use those powers to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead.
“Critical cross-cutting programmes – addressing social deprivation, tackling paramilitarism – are stalling following 19 months without devolved government,” she added.
“As this impasse continues, public services are suffering. Businesses are suffering. The people of Northern Ireland are suffering. Local decision-making is urgently needed to address this.
“The only sustainable way forward lies in stable, fully functioning and inclusive devolved government.”
Bradley said she was keeping the option of setting a fresh election date under review, but said she did not believe that calling an election now “would be helpful or increase the prospects of restoring the executive”.
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