David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has revealed he is concerned that a lack of ministers in the devolved administration could become "the new normal".
Speaking in a BBC documentary examining how civil servants have been running the Stormont executive since the collapse of power-sharing arrangements between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party in early 2017, Sterling said there had been a "slow decay and stagnation" in public services due to the lack of elected representatives.
The powers of civil servants in Northern Ireland to make decisions without ministers have been subject to legal challenge. A court ruling last May overturned a decision by officials to approve a waste incinerator in the absence of ministers, while a further challenge examining the legality of plans for an electricity interconnector with the Republic of Ireland is under way.
Sterling has previously said that the power vacuum is putting his 23,000 staff in an “unacceptable” position and, speaking to the BBC, said: “My concern would be that, in the ongoing absence of ministers, people will get used to this and think it is OK when it isn’t. There’s a risk that this could become the new normal, and that would not be good.”
Sterling said there had not yet been a "cliff edge moment", where the workings of government departments had collapsed.
However, he said there had been a deterioration in areas including health, education and criminal justice.
“Our health service is facing many of the challenges that health services across the western world are facing, we have an ageing population, we have an increasing demand for service that has seen an increase in waiting lists here. Ministers wouldn’t necessarily have made an immediate impact on that, but nonetheless, major transformation of our health service is needed and transformation is needed in many of our services.”
In particular he warned that some of Northern Ireland’s social housing stock may have to be left vacant if ministers do not return, a situation that is due to a maintenance backlog.
“In housing we have had a backlog of maintenance and this is not just about finding new money, this is about reconfiguring the way we deliver social housing. There are big issues which need to be addressed by ministers, and in the absence of that there is a real risk that we might actually have to mothball some of our social housing,” he said.
Sterling highlighted that even after the Westminster parliament passed legislation late last year – the Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions Act – to clarify the powers of devolved departments without ministers, civil servants remained in a difficult position.
“Essentially what that does is remove the requirement that civil servants receive direction from ministers, in the absence of the executive,” he said.
“But is quite clear there are still many areas where the civil service should not be taking decisions – for example we should not be setting new policy or strategy. However there is a need from time to time for civil servants to confront new issues, and what we are required to do is to consider if it is in the public interest that we respond or intervene – for example if there is a risk to public health or public safety, or if there’s going to be some financial loss.
“These are the type of factors that we would need to take into account, but obviously these are judgements, and this can be quite difficult for us to have to deal with.”
You can listen to the documentary in full here.