The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has invited Stormont party leaders to a meeting as she warned the “governance gap” left by the lack of a functioning executive is exacerbating budget pressures.
In a letter to Northern Ireland’s four largest political parties, Jayne Brady said she and the other NICS permanent secretaries believe the budget imposed by Westminster earlier this month will “inevitably cause enduring harm to public service delivery, society and the economy”.
"The budget challenge is compounded by a governance gap," she said.
Her invitation comes after Sinn Féin, now the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in local government, said it wanted a return to power sharing – which most recently collapsed last year.
At the end of March, Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris set out a proposed budget that experts have said would require some departments to cut around 10% of their spending.
In draft guidance accompanying the budget, Heaton-Harris did not provide any support for civil servants who are left governing the country in the absence of political leadership. The FDA union had urged the secretary of state to change the law to enable ministers in the Northern Ireland Office to give formal directions to civil servants, providing political legitimacy to choices about budget cuts.
In her letter to Sinn Féin, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party, Brady said this had left civil servants in an “invidious” position because making the spending decisions required to meet Heaton-Harris’s budget would effectively “turn civil servants into ministers”.
"For some departments, remaining within budget allocations would require decisions which cannot be taken in the absence of ministers,” she wrote.
"This leaves the relevant accounting officers in the invidious position of having no lawful means to ensure full compliance with the duty to remain within budget limits.
"As a result, the spending trajectory currently exceeds the budget and this will remain the case until and unless ministerial decision-making is restored.
"Departments have carefully considered the budget allocations and an analysis of the decisions required, and the implications for public services will be provided at our next meeting."
The letter comes after Brady told MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that it was “quite likely” that the budget would leave civil servants facing decisions that were “beyond the bounds” of their powers – including those that would terminate or have a detrimental impact on services.
She quoted guidance accompanying the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2022 that said decisions that will have “a major change of an existing policy, programme or scheme should normally be left for ministers to decide or agree”.
In her letter, Brady predicted that Northern Ireland’s financial position will remain “very challenging” even if its political parties do form an executive.
"An incoming executive would be faced with a series of difficult choices, made all the more challenging because they would fall to be taken part-way through the financial year,” she said.
"Our engagement since the assembly election has been constructive and has informed our collective next steps for further preparatory work towards the establishment of an executive.
"All parties have indicated that they are keen to continue that engagement with the NICS."