Belfast Telegraph

When all else fails, blame those blasted civil servants

By Tom Moseley

Here's some horrible civil servant-speak for you: 'Diminished positivity'. For those who haven't turned the page in disgust, it's the term used last week by officials in the Northern Ireland Office in a memo to First Minister Peter Robinson. They were describing the attitude of their Treasury counterparts towards the province's corporation tax ambitions.

Mr Robinson got a laugh from business leaders when he mentioned it as part of an attack on the people he believes are holding back the project. But his speech will not have amused the civil servants in audience. And it might have reached the ears of Sir Jeremy Heywood, the most senior civil servant in the land.

Two days after the First Minster's assault on the meddling mandarins, Sir Jeremy, the Cabinet Secretary, told a committee of MPs that, well, it's what they do.

"On occasions, civil servants have been responsible for insisting on due process and slowing things down and make things go through a proper decision-making process. That's our job," he said.

Officials do not deliberately set out to frustrate ministers, he said. But it seems to be something that is bugging elements within the Westminster coalition. Last year, in a speech that would have struck a chord with much of the audience at last week's Northern Ireland business summit, David Cameron attacked the "enemies of enterprise" lurking in town halls and government departments.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson recalls a tussle with the Treasury, when he was rebuffed in spite of holding a letter from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown backing him up. Whether all this is fair is another matter. As Sir Jeremy pointed out, civil servants are the ones who have to ensure due process is followed. So when a minister suggests that corporation tax is devolved - an incredibly complex proposal - the officials in charge of making it happen are going to have quite a job on their hands.

It's not just the civil servants. How about the ministers in the Treasury? They are said to be far less keen on the idea than Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson. If the policy is scrapped, the fatal blow will be dealt by Cabinet colleagues - not their officials.

There is also Scotland - no one mentioned that particular elephant in the room last week. If it's deemed to be politically impossible to hand corporation tax to Northern Ireland with an independence referendum looming, that won't be a decision reached by civil servants, either.

One thing is clear: Mr Paterson might have looked awkward during the First Minister's speech, but it painted him in rather a good light. If he delivers on corporation tax, he's overcome the mighty resistance of the Treasury. If he fails, well, it's those damn civil servants' fault.

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