Belfast Telegraph

Robinson throws down gauntlet to foot-dragging civil servants

By Quintin Oliver

For a long time after the transfer of powers under 'Direct Rule' from Westminster to the Assembly and Executive at Stormont, less mature MLAs, and sometimes even ministers, would rail against 'them', the 'system' and 'unelected civil servants' for doing or more often, not doing, the things that they wanted for their voters.

In turn, the civil servants would look aghast, roll their eyes and respond: "But they're in charge! They are responsible now."

And so they are. As the old saying goes, civil servants advise, ministers decide, civil servants then implement those decisions.

So when an experienced party leader, with over three decades at Westminster and a decade in the top ministerial posts of Regional Development, Finance and now First Minister, complains that civil servants are frustrating a clearly articulated policy request from senior politicians, it can only have two interpretations: either he has totally failed in his political objective and is seeking to deflect the blame, or else they are getting in the way and are blocking a democratically based policy direction. Which is it?

Now it always was an ambitious political aspiration - to break the iron law of UK parity on tax matters - only before conceded by then Chancellor Gordon Brown who waived air passenger tax for the Western Isles, allegedly to secure the Labour vote there.

Perhaps the recently successful cross-party campaign to have Air Passenger Duty (APD) devolved to Stormont to save our daily New York flight was as big a prize as we were ever going to achieve. Especially since the independence debate in Scotland has rendered a fragmentation of UK tax policy almost political suicide for the unionist cause.

Or else, he's right. In a wonderful mandarin retrospective speech recently at London Stock Exchange, former Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell gave the Ten Commandments of good policy-making, sailing close to admitting the power of the civil servant to block, delay or frustrate 'inappropriate' policies from politicians.

Maybe the current Chancellor is wishing that someone had indeed frustrated his 'pasty' tax, 'granny' tax and 'charity' tax!

If it is true, then Peter Robinson is right to lay down the terms of democratic accountability, to seek open, speedy, evidence-based advice from Treasury but then he must take full political responsibility for the decisions that he and colleagues make.

That's the hard part for leaders in a democracy, but what marks out the giants of politics.

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