Northern Ireland news

Stormont advertises public body posts without ministers to approve them

A public appointments backlog has built up due to the Stormont executive's collapse
Brendan Hughes

STORMONT departments have started advertising vacant posts on public bodies – despite ministers being needed to approve new appointments.

It has led to claims of "inconsistency" over when civil servants choose to act in the absence of an executive.

A backlog of unfilled and extended public appointments has built up following the political institutions' collapse earlier this year.

The appointments watchdog last month warned the problem had made gender equality targets "impossible to attain".

But now some departments, under the control of civil servants, have begun recruitment processes for some vacancies.

Four posts on the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service's board were publicly advertised earlier this week by the Department of Health.

It has also advertised positions on the Social Care Council and Western Trust, while the Department of Justice last month sought applicants for the RUC George Cross Foundation.

According to the public appointments code of practice, a minister is needed to both approve appointees and advertise vacancies.

The move emerges just weeks after both departments declined to release a high-profile report on Northern Ireland's abortion laws because of the absence of ministers.

Civil servants had come under pressure from campaigners to publish the report, completed a year ago, after some other government documents were released without ministerial sign-off.

Public bodies run government services in areas ranging from health and education to policing and justice.

Last month public appointments commissioner Judena Leslie told The Irish News that without ministers to make new appointments, Stormont departments have had to resort to making an "unprecedented" number of extensions to the tenures of board members and chairs.

During the financial year 2016/17 there were 66 extensions of tenure. However, in the first five months of 2017/18 her office had been notified of 96 extensions.

And board positions remain unfilled if members choose to leave rather than accepting an extension.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said: "The backlog in the public appointment process is creating a slowdown in public administration."

The MLA added that were was "inconsistency" in how departments approach their work in the absence of a functioning assembly and executive.

"They appear to make their own decisions around how proactive they can and should be at this time," he said.

"This silly situation has been caused by the DUP and Sinn Féin. It's time to get the institutions back up and running for the sake of patients on waiting lists and the education of our children."

A Department of Justice spokeswoman said its advertised trustee positions "will not be filled until a minister is in post".

On running the recruitment process without ministerial approval, she said: "The tenure of four of the six trustees came to an end in July 2017. Legal advice confirmed that, should the department consider any potential extension to those appointments, this could only be for a period of five years and would, therefore, be binding on any incoming minister.

"The decision to commence a fully open competition process was therefore taken by the permanent secretary. An independent assessor appointed by the Commissioner for Public Appointments has been fully engaged since the start of this process."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "Ministerial approval for all three public appointment competitions to proceed was obtained in January 2017.

"However, while the process will continue, there is no intention to make any appointments in advance of a minister being in place."

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