Stormont ministers are bluntly being told they must stop using official cars for travelling to and from work, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
The cash-strapped Executive has also been warned that in future ministers will have to increasingly share the top-of-the-range vehicles, in a bid to cut rising costs.
Finance Minister Sammy Wilson is determined to slam the brakes on his Stormont counterparts who regularly use the ministerial car service to come to the office and go back home.
In a letter just sent to ministers, Mr Wilson says the practice must stop altogether where the ministers live within a 30-mile radius of Stormont Castle — which means most of them.
The DUP minister said the hard-pressed public must see ministers “sharing the pain” — particularly given the recent political expenses scandals.
“I see no reason why ministers who live reasonably close to their office or Stormont should continue to travel by official car on those journeys at the public expense,” his letter, seen by the Belfast Telegraph, argued.
But he has also conceded the 30-mile threshold would allow ministers to work during the longer journey times — and ensure that drivers get their statutory rest periods.
At present the 13 ministerial cars clock up an annual average mileage of around 100,000 miles, but they are now out of warranty and approaching three and a half years old, with increasing maintainance costs.
Ministers have been told the capital cost of replacing all 13 cars is around £250,000, with further annual running costs of £325,000 on top.
But a new contract, believed to total significantly less, is about to be awarded, the Telegraph understands.
“At a time when we will be asking the people of Northern Ireland to accept reductions in public spending, it is my strong view that we as ministers must show leadership and take some of the pain ourselves,” Mr Wilson’s letter goes on.
“It is particularly important that we are seen to be doing so, given the critical focus on the expenses of public representatives.”
A number of car-sharing scenarios have been drawn up, with Mr Wilson set in one option to share official transport with the SDLP’s sole minister, Alex Attwood.
Ulster Unionist ministers Sir Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey would have a vehicle between them, and other car partners fall along party lines — the DUP’s Arlene Foster with Nelson McCausland, for example, or Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane sharing with Conor Murphy.
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will retain their individual vehicles, but Mr McGuinness can use his to go home to the north west, while the DUP leader — who lives just outside Belfast — cannot.
Government departments, however, would still be able to use taxis or executive car services where specific journeys cannot be covered.
And some senior civil servants are believed to have argued the proposals are an “administrative nightmare”.
Ministers have been asked to respond to Mr Wilson within the next fortnight but a final decision is likely to fall to the Executive overall.
“I accept this is something that has to be agreed between Executive members and I propose to put final proposals to you in September,” Mr Wilson added.