Revealed: One Stormont department's decisions which can't be taken

Details of the untaken decisions which have piled up in one Stormont department in the absence of a minister can be revealed.

Thursday, 2nd August 2018, 8:49 am
Updated Friday, 31st August 2018, 5:07 pm
Decisions have piled up at Stormont with no minister to take them  and the civil services room for manoeuvre is tightening

They include everything from a multi-million pound fund to upgrade football grounds to mandatory reporting of the gender pay gap and an appointment of a Northern Ireland member of the BBC board.

Stormont’s Department for Communities has released the information in response to a Freedom of Information request from Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen who last night called on the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, to step in and take the decisions.

She has, however, been deeply reluctant to do so and has expressed hope that fresh talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein in October might see them agree to return to Stormont.

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Mrs Bradley could only step in to take the decisions once Parliament returns in September because the government has not passed legislation implementing full direct rule, which would have allowed it to act immediately.

The department’s list includes nine decisions which cannot be taken in the absence of a minister or the Assembly and more than 30 public appointments. Similar situations exist at the eight other Stormont departments.

The decisions show how in several areas Northern Ireland is now lagging significantly behind the rest of the UK due to the absence of any form of government.

Mandatory gender pay gap reporting by companies employing more than 250 people has been in place in the rest of the UK since last year – but firms in Northern Ireland are not covered by the law because Stormont must approve secondary legislation.

Similarly, government moves to slash the amount people can gamble on fixed odds betting terminals – a decision made amid public concern about their impact on society – do not apply in Northern Ireland due to the absence of either devolution or direct rule.

The department is also unable to make a host of public appointments.

Those include a Northern Ireland member of the BBC board, three members of the board of Libraries NI, a chair and vice chair of the Charities Advisory Committee, a deputy chief commissioner and two commissioners of the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland Board, a chair and nine members of the Historic Monuments Council, a chair and vice chair of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive board and a chair and two members of the Ulster Supported Employment Ltd Board.

The department drew up the list prior to senior Stormont civil servants’ decision not to appeal a Court of Appeal ruling which further restricts their room to take decisions by ruling that civil servants – who had been stretching the boundaries of their powers – cannot take decisions normally taken by ministers.

Mr Allen said that “the sheer scale of the number of decisions awaiting ministerial approval” made the government’s refusal to intervene untenable. The East Belfast MLA added that Mrs Bradley “now has no option but to step in and take the decisions that are piling up across local departments”.

Football, gender pay, arts ... long list of inaction

Financial allocations within the sub regional stadia programme for soccer: A £36.2 million fund to upgrade football grounds, including addressing safety problems, and to “meet the strategic needs of soccer”. The department needs a minister to decide on how the money should be spent.

Consultation on the future regional infrastructure support programme: This consultation on changes to support for the voluntary and community sector closed in November 2016 but a minister has to decide on the policy.

Affordable warmth scheme public consultation: This began last November and proposed changes to the Affordable Warmth scheme which gives government support to improve the energy efficiency of those struggling the most to heat their homes. The consultation is over but a minister must decide on what to do now.

Agreement to make the Local Government (Payment to Councillors) Regulations: This secondary legislation would give effect to the revision of councillors’ allowances and other legislative changes resulting from local government reform.

Arts and culture strategy: A consultation on the need for and content of a culture and arts strategy for NI goes back to the 2015-2016 financial year. A minister is required for a policy decision.

Review of monetary limits for gaming machines: Westminster has decided to slash the maximum stake which can be wagered in fixed odds betting terminals, which campaigners have described as the crack cocaine of gambling. Stormont consulted on the issue in 2016 but only a minister can make such a policy change.

The Employment Act (NI) 2016 – Gender and disclosure of information: Secondary legislation is necessary to make companies in Northern Ireland report on the gender pay gap among their employees. This Assembly must pass the regulations.

Sex Discrimination Order 1976 Amendment Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012 – Review of Insurance Clauses: This requires the department to carry out a review of the regulatory system established by the 1976 Order, implementing the principle of equal treatment between men and women in the access to insurance. Ministerial approval is required.

Disposal of 59 former MoD houses at Mountview Drive and Skyline Drive in Lisburn to Clanmill Housing Association for free: The department wants to hand over the houses to the housing association to have them developed into a social and affordable housing development. A minister must make the decision and the Assembly must be notified.