Northern Ireland

Finance committee chair accuses first and deputy first ministers of blocking briefing by head of civil service

The assembly’s finance committee requested a briefing by Jayne Brady more than a month ago

First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left) and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly speaking to the media after Queen Camilla attended an event hosted by the Queen’s Reading Room to mark World Poetry Day at Hillsborough Castle in Belfast, during her two-day official visit to Northern Ireland. Picture date: Thursday March 21, 2024.
First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left) and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

Stormont’s leaders have approved a briefing by the regional head of the civil service just hours after the chair of the assembly’s finance committee said it was “profoundly unacceptable” for them to block it.

Matthew O’Toole said a request for Jayne Brady to appear before the committee had been made more than a month ago but with just one session remaining before recess the Executive Office had yet to give its approval.

The SDLP MLA made the remarks at the beginning of the committee’s meeting on Wednesday.

He said it was “routine practice” for the relevant ministerial office to approve an appearance by a senior civil servant.

The committee is seeking to quiz Ms Brady on a range of issues including civil service reform and the future of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

Jayne Brady, NICS head, leaves the Clayton Hotel in Belfast after giving evidence
Head of the regional civil service Jayne Brady. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY

Mr O’Toole said a committee’s briefing by the head of the civil service was “extremely important”.

He said it was the MLAs’ job to scrutinise the work of the Department of Finance, which has a strategic policy role in terms of the civil service.

“We’re not able to do that job if we can’t take evidence from head of the civil service,” he said.

“Previous committees have taken evidence from other heads of the civil service, so it is unacceptable to the first and deputy first minister, or people operating on their behalf, are effectively blocking the head of the civil service, it appears, from coming to give us evidence.”

The committee chair said it was important to put on record the reason for Ms Brady’s non-appearance.

He described it as an “extreme discourtesy and “profoundly unacceptable”.

Alliance MLA Eóin Tennyson said he had spoken to members of the Executive Office and concluded that the lack of any response from the Stormont leaders’ office was “not an isolated incident”.

“It’s a recurring theme, in terms of the sign-off not being granted on papers and not being approved on time for committee to do their scrutiny work,” he said.

But within hours of the public remarks and a request from the Irish News for comment, the Executive Office informed the committee that Ms Brady would appear next week.