Ministers 'should not oversee NICS head appointment' after delays, union chief says

Failure to appoint successor to David Sterling shows process lets ministers “put party politics over public interest", Dave Penman says
First minister Arlene Foster was accused of playing politics. Photo: Michael Cooper/PA Archive/PA Images

Northern Ireland’s first minister and deputy first minister should not be allowed to appoint the next head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the head of a trade union has said.

Writing in NI daily newspaper the News Letter, Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, accused Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill of playing politics with the role, after they failed to appoint a replacement for David Sterling, who announced his retirement nine months ago.

The delays demonstrated ministers “should not have the final say on the appointment of civil servants at any level”, he said.

“Ministers prevaricated before a national recruitment exercise was launched, overseen by the independent Civil Service Commission. This produced three final candidates, all of whom they considered appointable,” Penman said.

And he said while the delay to the process beginning was “bad enough”, the failure to appoint someone to the role was “simply an abdication of responsibility”.

Penman said having a strong, impartial civil service was paramount.

“The success or failure of the civil service affects all areas of public service but also the wider economy, supporting business and dealing with regulation, which is ever more vital as we approach the Brexit cliff edge,” he said.

At a committee hearing last week, Foster and O’Neill said the NICS could end up having an “interim head of the civil service” for up to a year while ministers examined the role.

Deputy first minister O’Neill was unable to give a timeframe for an interim appointment. “We’re looking at and re-looking at the role of HOCS [head of the ciivl service] and we’re looking at governance models elsewhere: how this is done and is there a better way for us to do it,” she said.

“That’s all part and parcel of what we’re trying to do to design a new process, because there will have to be a new process. These things can be lengthy, and that’s why we’ve decided to opt for an interim.”

But Penman said the lack of a permanent NICS head compromised the effectiveness of the civil service.

“As the government grapples with Covid-19 and Brexit, it is vital the civil service has someone to lead, inspire and reform it as it faces the many challenges ahead,” he wrote.

“The failure to appoint a new head is not only a failure of collective leadership but demonstrates the dysfunctionality of a process that allows elected ministers to put party politics over public interest.”

Three candidates – including former Cabinet Office ethics chief Sue Gray, now permanent secretary at Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance – were understood to have been on last month’s final shortlist.

Up to £190,000 a year was on offer for Sterling’s successor. They had been expected to oversee reforms an inquiry into the “cash-for-ash” scandal that brought extra scrutiny to the conduct of special advisers, ministers and civil servants. They would also have overseen legislative changes coming into force next year and a new code of conduct for officials, according to the job ad.

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