A civil service union has warned of “profound consequences” after the government tabled a budget for Northern Ireland that could require 10% cuts to departmental spending and leaves officials to make those decisions because of the political vacuum at Stormont.
The Northern Ireland Civil Service has been effectively running the nation without political leadership since the collapse of power sharing last year. In March, the FDA union urged Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to enact a law change that would allow ministers in the Northern Ireland Office to give formal directions to civil servants, providing political legitimacy to choices about budget cuts.
However, last week Heaton-Harris set out the government’s proposed budget for Northern Ireland, without offering the additional support for officials that the FDA, which represents civil service leaders, had been seeking.
The budget provides £14.2bn for services, with more than half of that figure earmarked for health. However, commentators agree the figures imply significant spending cuts for other departmental areas.
FDA national officer for Scotland and Northern Ireland Allan Sampson said it was wrong to put unelected officials in the position of having to make choices over how implement cuts that will have a significant impact.
“There’s an expectation that departments could be looking at cuts of around 10%. If so, that is likely to have profound consequences for the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“Although the budget contains a headline figure, the secretary of state will not specify how those cuts should be made.
“Those decisions, as things stand – and they will be incredibly difficult decisions, will have to be taken by civil servants, which is unfair to civil servants.”
Sampson said the situation is also unfair to the people of Northern Ireland, who have a right to expect that democratically elected politicians would take such decisions.
Heaton-Harris has repeatedly said the government’s preferred route for political accountability in Northern Ireland is for a new executive to be formed.
He said the government will legislate to confirm the 2023-24 Northern Ireland budget if a devolved administration is not in place to approve it and will also legislate to extend arrangements for civil servants to take decisions in the absence of an executive.
“It should be for locally elected politicians to take this strategic decision making to transform and modernise NI’s public services,” he said.
“However, the approach taken in setting the budget and the provisions included in the interim arrangements bill will ensure important work progresses if an executive is still not in place.”
Current arrangements for civil servants to act without direction from the Northern Ireland Executive expire on 5 June.
The government said its draft bill also includes new powers for the secretary of state to direct Northern Ireland departments to provide him with advice on options to raise revenue or deliver sustainable public finances in the ongoing absence of Northern Ireland ministers.