At least 164 pieces of legislation are at an impasse in Northern Ireland because they cannot move forward without ministerial sign-off, data released under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed.
Strategies for investment, superfast broadband and arts and culture and an action plan to tackle paramilitary activity and organised crime were among the projects, programmes and other items at eight of Northern Ireland’s nine government departments being held up by a lack of elected politicians, FOI requests submitted by the Belfast Telegraph revealed.
The total number of stalled projects is likely to be higher than 164, because the Department of Finance refused to share the requested information.
The Department for Communities reported having the highest number of decisions pending – 32 – including legislation to require companies to publicly declare their gender pay gap. The Department for Infrastructure was awaiting sign-off on 30 items, including proposals to introduce tougher penalties for using a mobile phone while driving.
The Department for the Economy had 28 decisions pending and the Department of Justice had 25.
“Dozens” of public appointments could not be made because they would need ministerial approval, including political appointees to the Policing Board. The board has not met since 2017 as a result.
With no executive in place at Stormont since a power-sharing agreement collapsed in January 2017, civil servants have been effectively running Northern Ireland for the last two years.
However, their powers do not extend to making all the decisions that would normally be made by ministers. Also on the list was progress on the Programme for Government, which sets out the executive’s priorities. David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has stressed that setting governmental priorities should be a role for ministers and not public officials.
“Only ministers can decide what are the best strategies and policies to make a difference, only ministers can set priorities for action, and only ministers can choose how best to allocate the scarce resources, especially financial resources, available to us,” he said in September.
Over the last two years, there has been some uncertainty about the extent to which civil servants have the authority to make key decisions. A court ruling in May overturned a decision by officials to approve a waste incinerator in the absence of ministers.
During the judicial review, lawyers challenging the decision to approve the incinerator, said civil servants were “in disarray as to how far their powers extend”.
A bill passed by the Westminster parliament last month set to rectify this confusion by clarifying civil servants’ powers, making it easier for them to make some decisions and public appointments.
This will allow civil servants to deal with some of the legislation that had been prevented from moving forward until now. However, much of it will still require ministerial sign-off and will therefore remain in limbo until an executive is in place.