Northern Ireland

Urgent action needed, civil service head Jayne Brady tells Heaton-Harris

Jayne Brady has written to the secretary of state ahead of a major strike by public sector workers in Northern Ireland on Thursday.

Head of the Northern Ireland civil service Jayne Brady said urgent action was needed
Head of the Northern Ireland civil service Jayne Brady said urgent action was needed (Liam McBurney/PA)

The head of Northern Ireland’s civil service has told Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris that “urgent action is required to address unacceptable public sector pay disparity”.

Jayne Brady wrote to Mr Heaton-Harris on Monday, just days before a major strike planned by tens of thousands of public sector workers over pay.

While the UK Government offered a £3.3 billion package to stabilise finances in Northern Ireland, including £600 million to settle public sector pay claims, it will not be made available until the Stormont Assembly is restored.

Mr Heaton-Harris held talks with the major Stormont parties at Hillsborough on Monday, but the DUP says it will not re-enter devolved government until unionist concerns around post-Brexit trading arrangements are addressed by the Government.

In the confidential letter, seen by the PA news agency, Ms Brady says she is conscious that political engagement on the formation of an Executive is at a “sensitive and critical juncture”, and of the need to “avoid any action that might cut across that process”.

She said her letter is “without prejudice to any decisions that an incoming Executive might take”, but the imminent industrial action and the need to prepare a budget prompted her to write to Mr Heaton-Harris “urgently about the grave risks to public services, citizen safety and wellbeing, and the stability of public finances”.

“You have publicly stated that the UK Government cannot, and will not, stand by and allow public services and finances to decline further,” she said.

“This Thursday will represent the single biggest day of industrial action in a generation, reflecting the strength of feeling and deteriorating, and frankly untenable, position we are now in.”

She said urgent action is required to “address unacceptable public sector pay disparity”, estimated at £634 million to maintain “broad parity” between Northern Ireland civil servants and their colleagues in Great Britain.

“While there can be no guarantee that these levels of pay awards would either be fully acceptable to trade unions or bring a complete end to industrial action, it would at least bring many Northern Ireland public servants more into line with offers to counterparts elsewhere,” she wrote.

“This represents one of the last opportunities to avert the strike action planned for this week.”

Ms Brady also raised the projected budget overspend 2023/24 as something that “must be resolved” and pressed the “urgent need to set budgets for 2024/25 across the public sector”.

Ms Brady signed off by saying she would be keen to meet Mr Heaton-Harris at his “earliest convenience” to discuss what she had raised.

A Northern Ireland Office spokesman said: “It’s disappointing to see leaked correspondence at this sensitive time. Our absolute priority and full focus is to see a restored executive delivering for people and workers in Northern Ireland.

“We have offered a fair and generous package worth £3 billion, which will help a restored executive address a range of pressing issues in the round, from public sector pay to support with ensuring sustainable public services.

“This offer is on the table for parties to take forward at pace.”