Stormont officials have come under fire after it emerged that a fleet of luxurious ministerial cars is being used to ferry civil servants on official business in the absence of an Executive.
Information obtained by BBC News NI has revealed that senior civil servants have used chauffeur-driven cars for around 600 journeys over the past six months.
Some of these trips involved shuttling departmental officials between buildings within the Stormont estate, while others saw staff picked up and dropped off at their homes.
According to the BBC – who obtained the information through a Freedom of Information request – some of the journeys included:
• A 300-mile round trip which saw a car dispatched from Belfast to pick up a civil servant in Londonderry, drive them to Belfast, back to Londonderry and then return the car to Belfast again
• An official from the Department for Infrastructure being driven to Dublin Airport to catch a flight to Paris
• Officials from the Department of Education were chauffeured from Bangor to Dublin, where the driver waited and brought them back again on two separate occasions
Stormont departments have defended the actions saying officials used the cars when it made sense to do so.
But John Dallat MLA has said the fleet of cars should have been “moth-balled” after the collapse of the power-sharing institutions earlier this year.
He told the News Letter: “It is soul-destroying to see the resources that were put in place to serve a functioning Stormont government are now being used in this way.
“To be honest I am not sure such a large fleet of ministerial cars was ever justified.
“But if we are sincere about saving money for under-pressure services such as health and education then this needs to stop. It is just wrong.
“These cars should only be used when there are ministers in post. That means as soon as an election is called they should be moth-balled.”
It is understood eight Stormont departments have a ministerial car.
The Department for Infrastructure told the News Letter that, over the eight-month period since the collapse of Stormont, its departmental vehicle has been used 29 times.
A spokesperson added: “It is essential to retain the vehicles and their drivers to ensure the department is prepared for the formation of an Executive. The alternative would leave the drivers and the cars paid for by the taxpayer sitting doing nothing.”
The Department for the Economy – which the BBC said had the busiest ministerial car – said it encourages staff to make use of the service where possible, stating it was “a more economical means of meeting the costs of travel on official business”.
A spokesperson said: “It can be more cost-effective to make use of an existing resource in this way, than to rely on staff’s privately owned vehicles and the payment of mileage expenses.”