Stormont Credt: PA
Civil servants in Northern Ireland are a step closer to getting the boosted clarity on their powers that secretary of state Karen Bradley promised in response to the ongoing political vacuum at Stormont.
Last month Bradley pledged new legislation to support civil servants effectively running Northern Ireland in the absence of elected ministers, and yesterday the fast-tracked bill passed its third reading at Westminster.
Northern Ireland has lacked an executive since power-sharing arrangements between Sinn Feinn and the Democratic Unionist Party collapsed in at the beginning of last year.
While civil servants have limited powers to keep services moving when there is no executive in place, the lack of political direction is understood to have led to a backlog of major decisions being placed on hold. A parliamentary briefing on the legislation suggested that just one of Northern Ireland's eight departments had a list of stalled decisions that ran into double figures.
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.
Under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill, a senior officer of a Northern Ireland department will not be prevented from exercising a function of the department during the period for forming an executive if they are satisfied that it is in the public interest.
The bill also replaces the requirement for UK ministers to consult, or obtain the approval of, Northern Ireland ministers or the executive committee before exercising appointment functions with a requirement to consult the relevant NI department.
Addtionally, it enables the secretary of state for Northern Ireland to exercise any appointment function that an NI minister could exercise jointly with others, when that function is exercised in conjunction with the relevant NI department.
The bill also extends the period during which an executive can be formed following last year's elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly – giving parties until 26 March next year to make a new power sharing agreement. A further five months could be added to that timescale, with the agreement of parliament.
Northern Ireland secretary Bradley told parliament the NICS had a difficult task weighing up which decisions they could take in the absence of ministers.
“I would like to pay tribute to their hard work and dedication,” she said. “This bill and this proposed guidance seeks to provide a framework to inform their decision making.
"For example, it advises that opportunities should be taken to work towards the 12 outcomes published in the 2018-19 Outcomes Delivery Plan based on the draft Programme for Government developed in conjunction with the political parties of the previous Executive.
“The guidance takes as its starting points that there are certain decisions that should not be taken in the absence of ministers. Senior officers in departments will be obliged to then consider whether there is a public interest in taking a decision rather than deferring it.
“These measures do not set or change policy direction on devolved issues in Northern Ireland - that is rightly for executive and assembly and our overriding priority is to see them up and running again.
“The NICS need certainty about decision making powers and we should not be seeking to direct them on issues which clearly require ministerial decisions.”