Karen Bradley has told Parliament that in the absence of devolution Stormont civil servants’ decisions do not need political scrutiny.
Setting out a novel philosophy of accountability for public servants in a democracy, the secretary of state made a series of remarkable statements to a near-empty House of Commons chamber.
Her comments came as she rushed through Parliament in a single day a crucial piece of budgetary legislation which authorised billions of pounds of public spending in Northern Ireland.
She did so on the basis that it had only recently become clear now – three weeks from the end of the financial year – that there would be no devolved Executive to do so, even though for months there have not even been talks to restore Stormont.
Ms Bradley repeatedly said that “this is a very technical bill” – before going on to justify giving it less scrutiny despite its complexity.
Under cross-party pressure to explain why she had fast-tracked the legislation so that it would receive scant scrutiny by MPs, Ms Bradley offered a series of justifications.
Having decided not to implement direct rule, she cannot direct how the money is spent. However, she went so far as to tell the Commons that she cannot even ask Stormont civil servants how they are spending the money.
Ms Bradley told Labour’s Vernon Coaker: “Those are the monies that the permanent secretaries have asked me to deliver to them.
“I cannot direct the spending within those departments. I also cannot ask them exactly which work streams or programmes they will spend the money on, because in this House we do not have the Executive power to do that.”
Mr Coaker said that “it would be helpful, as far as possible, to have some idea about the reasons that that money has been requested”.
The bill would give retrospective authorisation for money already spent by Stormont during the current financial year. However, it also gives authorisation for the expenditure next year of 70% of this year’s budget – a huge increase from the 45% figure in previous such bills.
Despite the fact that the first clause of the bill authorised the spending of £16.8 billion, Ms Bradley repeatedly justified the limited scrutiny being given to it. Facing criticism from former Stormont finance minister Sammy Wilson, who said that the scrutiny of the spending was inadequate, Ms Bradley set out her thinking on how civil servants should operate in the current situation.
She said: “Civil servants are taking decisions – not major policy decisions, but the decisions that the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 enables them to make and that we want them to be able to make.
“We have to be very careful about the civil service’s separation and independence from scrutiny by political masters. It is the political decisions that need scrutiny, not the decisions of civil servants.
“We would like to see departments given full scrutiny in Stormont, as happens in this House, but we have to be very careful about the constitutional arrangements.”
She also told Mr Wilson: “I caution him against trying to create artificial scrutiny processes that might well set a precedent for the future across all the devolved nations.”
DUP MP Gavin Robinson put it to Ms Bradley: “There is no need for this bill to be done through emergency procedures – there is no need for it to be fast-tracked.
“The explanatory memorandum says that the bill is being fast-tracked because there was a hope that the Executive would have been restored to make the provisions. When in the past two months was there any genuine prospect of the Assembly being restored to go through this process?”
Ms Bradley replied that “we have to be aware of the constitutional precedents that are set by changing the way we scrutinise these bills”.
Ms Bradley appeared to be unclear as to how money has been spent by Stormont.
When asked by Labour MP Jess Phillips about expenditure on childcare which was contained within the bill in Ms Bradley’s name, the secretary of state responded obliquely: “I mean, this is a very technical bill to put on a statutory footing the monies that we have already voted through the House or that have been raised locally”, adding that the allocations within it were based on the views of Stormont civil servants.
She added: “How they spend that money is for them to determine, based on previous decisions of the Executive and on the previous draft programme for government.”
Ms Bradley admitted: “That leads to perverse outcomes”, but insisted that if Stormont is not restored there is no other solution. Tory MP Mike Penning said the refusal to implement direct rule was “a sop” to Sinn Fein.
DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly put it to Ms Bradley: “At which point will the secretary of state accept that this is an entirely unsustainable position?
“As has been outlined, there is no scrutiny in this process. I do not believe that such a process would take place anywhere in a democracy in the western world.
“This process is taking place completely behind closed doors in terms of what bids are being put forward and what bids are being accepted.”
The South Belfast MP, whose husband Richard is permanent secretary of Stormont’s Department of Health, said that “the secretary of state and this government are refusing to put in place direct rule, which, although not desirable, is necessary. We have now had several years of this type of process where there is no scrutiny and no democratic accountability. When is that going to change?”
Ms Bradley responded that there was “full scrutiny of the Northern Ireland block grant” – the overall pot of more than £12 billion sent to Stormont.
However, she admitted that there was an “undesirable level of scrutiny” of how public money is now being spent in Northern Ireland after that point.
Ms Bradley sidestepped the DUP MP’s question about direct rule, arguing that the solution to the scrutiny problem was to restore devolution.
DUP MP Gregory Campbell said that the NHS in Northern Ireland had come through recent months “in a poor state, but not a crisis” because of the mild winter but warned that next winter he is “absolutely certain we will not come through unscathed” without the Bengoa reforms being implemented either by Stormont or direct rule.
Labour MP Stella Creasy and other opponents of Northern Ireland’s abortion and same-sex marriage legislation tabled an amendment to the bill in an attempt to prevent spending enforcing the current law. However, after a warning to Ms Bradley that her concerns would be “perpetual and enduring for every piece of legislation until these issues are resolved”, Ms Creasy withdrew the amendment.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson described the NIO as “the nest of vipers” and suggested that it may be NIO advice which is preventing Ms Bradley from moving to direct rule. Labour shadow secretary of state Tony Lloyd said: “I deplore those remarks”, because officials cannot defend themselves.
After less than four hours of debate in a near-empty chamber, the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill passed all its House of Commons stages and now goes to the Lords.