Belfast Telegraph

Unacceptable civil servants take 'life or death' decisions, says DUP MP whose husband is Stormont chief

I've witnessed first hand huge pressure chiefs are under, says MP

Richard Pengelly with wife Emma Little Pengelly
Richard Pengelly with wife Emma Little Pengelly
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

DUP MP Emma Little Pengelly has called on Westminster to take control over Northern Ireland affairs so that civil servants - such as her husband - do not have to take "unacceptable life or death" decisions.

She said she witnessed at first hand the "huge pressure" civil servants - such as her husband, the Department of Health's Richard Pengelly - were under.

January will mark two years since Northern Ireland's devolved institutions collapsed. In October, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley passed legislation in Westminster to give civil servants more powers to make decisions in the continued absence of ministers.

It followed after a court ruled mandarins could not approve a controversial plan for a waste incinerator on the outskirts of Belfast.

Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live's Piennar's Politics show South Belfast MP Ms Little Pengelly was upfront about her husband's position. She was asked if she wanted direct rule. It came after reports Boris Johnson was proposing to introduce such a measure if he were the Prime Minister.

Ms Little Pengelly said that while they were committed to devolution and wanted the restoration of Stormont, the DUP had been calling for direct rule to ensure decisions made were democratically accountable while they remained in cold storage.

"I don't believe senior civil servants should be put in that position," she said.

"Ultimately they are trying to make decisions in difficult budget environments. Some of the decisions require discussions and explanation.. that should rightly be going through scrutiny committees and debated on floor of Assembly. And yet you've got senior civil servants trying to deal with life and death issues, very tricky situations without that minister or democratic accountability. That is unacceptable."

She said that while it was "deeply disappointing" there was no Northern Ireland Assembly, there needed to be democratically accountable ministers taking decisions.

“In the absence of that it’s absolutely unacceptable that we have senior civil servants who are effectively making decisions. There is a significant issue here about democratic deficit and democratic accountability.

“We’ve urged the government to step in. We don’t desire direct rule, of course not, we’re a party of devolution. But in the absence of getting those institutions up and going in Northern Ireland we believe there should be ministerial decision-making from Westminster.”

Pressed on if the DUP would join with Labour in a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Theresa May, the MP would only say the party would consider the options before them but could not support the current withdrawal agreement. She would not be drawn on if the party had held discussions with Labour.

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