Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: Full scale of Stormont dysfunction laid bare - 164 key decisions in limbo

Stormont’s crippling impasse exposed

By Adrian Rutherford

More than 160 pieces of legislation have piled up since the collapse of Stormont because there are no ministers to make decisions.

The backlog includes strategies, business plans, planning applications and public appointments.

It affects everything from health and business to policing and the environment.

In some cases legislation has been held up, waiting on ministerial approval, for more than 600 days.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said: "These statistics are a stark example of what is happening in Northern Ireland.

"In the absence of political decision-making, government is gradually grinding to a halt."

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government since January 2017.

In that time a backlog of 164 big decisions has built up across eight of the nine Executive departments.

The other department did not provide details of its in-tray.

The Belfast Telegraph used Freedom of Information legislation to compile a list of everything awaiting ministerial sign-off.

It reveals for the first time the full impact of the Stormont impasse.

Outstanding decisions include:

  • The Programme for Government.
  • An investment strategy.
  • An action plan to tackle paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime.
  • Dozens of public appointments.
  • Stiffer penalties for driving while using a mobile phone.
  • Minimum pricing for alcohol.
  • Publishing the Protect Life 2 strategy to tackle suicide.
  • A superfast broadband strategy.
  • An arts and culture strategy.
  •  School development proposals.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, Mr Swann says the situation cannot continue, and urges Secretary of State Karen Bradley to act.

"These are decisions which should be made, could be made and now need to be made," he writes.

"It is having a direct and punitive impact on the people of Northern Ireland."

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said the situation was "shameful".

"People are suffering, budgets are being cut, services are under extraordinary pressure and no decisions can be taken to alleviate any of that," she said.

"We may be causing immense damage for the future by not taking certain decisions now, particularly in health and education."

Today is Northern Ireland's 677th day without a government.

The power-sharing Executive collapsed on January 16, 2017 in the wake of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal.

A series of talks to restore the institutions have stalled amid disagreements between the DUP and Sinn Fein on issues such as the Irish language and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

In the meantime, the region has been run by civil servants, who have limited authority and scope to make public spending decisions.

But there has been uncertainty as to how much authority they have.

Last month Mrs Bradley (above) passed legislation designed to give greater clarity to their decision-making powers.

It has brought some progress on issues such as compensating victims of historical institutional abuse and, this week, a cancer strategy for Northern Ireland, yet there remains a huge backlog. Documents released under FoI legislation reveal how 164 decisions that cannot be taken have piled up in the absence of ministers. The figure will be higher because one of the nine departments, the Department of Finance, refused to answer our request.

Some have been well publicised, such as the Programme for Government, which sets out the priorities that the Executive will pursue. Approval is also needed on a strategy to deal with suicide, an investment strategy and school development plans.

However, there is also a range of lesser known legislation.

This includes fishery management plans, remote control automated parking, reforming legal aid expenditure and amending the 1973 Drainage Order.

The Department for Communities has 32 decisions pending - the highest number.

Among them is the Employment Act (NI) 2016, which includes proposals to force large companies to disclose their gender pay gap. This has been held up by more than 670 days.

A further 30 decisions are in line at the Department for Infrastructure.

These include increasing penalties for using a mobile phone while driving, a series of planning applications and a planned trial scheme to allow certain taxis to use Belfast's bus lanes.

The Department for the Economy has 28 decisions pending, including sign-off on a draft industrial strategy, draft energy strategy and a Superfast Broadband strategy.

The Department of Justice has 25 outstanding decisions, including strategies on domestic violence and tackling paramilitary crime.

At the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, decisions on fishery management and water quality monitoring have sat for more than 650 days.

Several departments cannot make public appointments. For example, the Policing Board, which has oversight of the PSNI, has not met since early 2017 because it has no political appointees.

The DUP and Sinn Fein continue to blame each other for the impasse.

DUP MLA Gordon Lyons said: "Every day new issues arise which cannot be progressed because of Sinn Fein's boycott policy.

"The public are suffering and limited powers for civil servants to take decisions are no substitute for democratically-elected representatives taking decisions in the best interests of everyone we represent.

"The DUP has put down no pre-conditions ahead of the return of devolution. It's time that Sinn Fein dropped their red lines and put the needs of the public ahead of their narrow sectional interests."

Sinn Fein said: "It is the DUP's denial of rights, disrespect and lack of integrity that led to the collapse of the power-sharing institutions.

"Rather than commit to sharing power equally, the DUP then walked away from an agreement in February that would have seen the Assembly and the Executive restored.

"The institutions could be restored immediately if the DUP, backed by the Tories, ends the disgraceful denial of rights which are enjoyed by citizens everywhere else on these islands."

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