Civil service leaders’ union the FDA has called on Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to enact a law change allowing ministerial directions to be given to top officials amid the ongoing power vacuum at Stormont.
In a letter to Heaton-Harris shared on Twitter, Dave Penman said senior staff in the Northern Ireland Civil Service were being put in an “invidious position” because of the lack of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive.
Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly were held last May, but no executive has been formed since.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Functions) Act 2022 allows senior officers in Northern Ireland departments to exercise departmental functions without the direction and control of a minister. However, Penman said the tough 2023-24 spending constraints that are expected to be imposed imminently would cross a line.
“The FDA is aware, from the statements you and local parties in Northern Ireland have made in recent days, that you expect to set an exceptionally challenging budget for Northern Ireland by the end of this week,” Penman wrote to Heaton-Harris.
“Members who are accounting officers, and those who support them, are being tasked by you to implement this challenging budget, requiring exceptionally difficult decisions to be taken which fall far outside the scope of what should be decided by officials operating without the direction and control of a minister.”
Penman said many of the decisions senior officials needed to take would be “significant and controversial” and would present a serious risk of negatively affecting some of the most vulnerable people.
Penman said no civil servant had accepted a job in the NICS with the intention of making decisions that ought to be made by democratically elected ministers.
“The current model places our members in an invidious position, requiring politically impartial advisers and administrators to adopt a role that demands they take political decisions,” he said.
Penman said senior civil servants would do their best to make decisions where they judged it to be in the public interest and in line with Northern Ireland Office guidance. But he said the position Heaton-Harris had chosen to place officials in was “entirely wrong”.
Penman said enacting a law change to enable NIO ministers to provide written directions to accounting officers would distance civil servants from making political decisions that should properly rest with others.
“The FDA would respectfully ask that you legislate to amend the provisions of the Northern Ireland (Executive Functions) Act 2022, to empower a minister from your department to provide ministerial direction to NICS colleagues,” he said. “So that decisions of a political nature are taken at the right level, with suitable democratic accountability, rather than by civil servants acting in the absence of ministers.”
A Northern Ireland Office spokesperson said the UK government believed restoring devolved institutions in line with 1998’s Good Friday Agreement was the “most immediate way” of delivering local governance and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
“The secretary of state has expressed his disappointment that for four out of the past six years, Northern Ireland has been without locally elected representatives to take the key strategic decisions to, for example, protect public finances,” the spokesperson said.
“The UK government's priority remains to see restored devolved institutions in place to take the decisions and action needed to address the challenges facing Northern Ireland at this time.”