News analysis Northern Ireland baulks at public sector reform

31 Jan 08
As Peter Hain reflects on the end of his ministerial career, he can at least console himself that he oversaw the re-establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

01 February 2008

As Peter Hain reflects on the end of his ministerial career, he can at least console himself that he oversaw the re-establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland. Yet a key part of his legacy in the province looks increasingly under threat: his attempt to reform and slim down its public sector.

Take one symbolic, but important, example. In 2005, Hain appointed Bertha McDougall as interim victims commissioner, supporting those bereaved or disabled in the Troubles. That highly contentious appointment – McDougall is the widow of a Royal Ulster Constabulary reservist – was challenged and overturned by the High Court in Belfast.

After a year of delay and deadlock, the permanent position of victims commissioner has just been filled – several times over. Where Hain appointed one, the new devolved government has appointed four.

McDougall, perceived as a favourite of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, was reappointed. Also selected were Patricia MacBride, who is close to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness; former television presenter Mike Nesbitt; and Brendan McAllister, the director of Mediation Northern Ireland.

The perception is that faced with a difficult and politically sensitive decision, ministers went for the easy option – selecting people representing a variety of outlooks and backgrounds. Democratic it might be, cheap it is not.

The symbolism lies in the parallels with the fate of another Hain-inspired inheritance, the Review of Public Administration. The RPA produced the blueprint for a slimmer public sector, with fewer councils with more powers, and the rationalisation of health and education bodies.

Northern Ireland's ministers are steadily backing away from the plan. As Public Finance went to press, ministers were meeting to decide what to do about local government. The RPA recommended merging 26 district councils into seven regional 'super councils'. While the suggestion pleased Sinn Féin, it angered unionists.

Following a 'review of the review' – led by DUP environment minister Arlene Foster – the Northern Ireland Executive looked certain to reject the seven-council option, saying it would deprive local government of local identity. It might opt instead for 15 councils – probably preserving some on their existing boundaries.

Foster has already provisionally rejected giving councils extra responsibilities for planning, regeneration, local road maintenance and fire services.

In health it is a similar story. In one of Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey's first steps as health minister, he put a stop to much of his department's plans for reorganisation under the RPA. Instead, he is giving 'more thought' to what structures should be put in place and slowing down implementation.

McGimpsey commented: 'I understand that this delay in clarifying exactly what future change will look like is frustrating for staff, but it is extremely important to get it right. Current structures have origins from some 30 years ago. Northern Ireland is a very different place now.

'I want to be sure that the changes I make will deliver the best outcome for the people of Northern Ireland now – health and social care structures that meet local needs.'

While 17 health provider trusts have been merged into five, moves agreed by direct rule ministers to amalgamate four health and social services regional boards into a single health and social services authority have been put on hold – even though senior appointees are already in place.

A spokesman for the health department said it was unable to discuss what further steps there might be towards implementation of the reforms. It is unlikely that there will be any further changes to existing structures before April next year.

More progress is being made on RPA implementation in education, with a new education and skills authority on track for April next year, replacing four regional boards.

But streamlining education administration is small beer compared to a much bigger objective – cutting back the number of schools.

Hain, as secretary of state, criticised the 'hugely wasteful costs of division in this society' that was behind the

over-provision of schools. 'In some towns and villages here we have three or four primary schools where in other parts of the UK there might only be one,' he said.

The result of this over-supply is 50,000 spare school places, projected to rise to 80,000 within a few years.

But closing and merging schools to increase integration is divisive in a society where the vast majority of children have little contact with those from 'the other' religion.

Since becoming education minister eight months ago, Caitríona Ruane has announced the closure of two primary schools and the merger of two others, while approving the closure of one Catholic post-primary school and the merger of two others.

Given that there are 1,254 schools in total in Northern Ireland, this represents painfully slow progress towards rationalisation.

But if the RPA and its recipe for a thinner public sector is not whetting the appetite of ministers, other inherited reform policies are more popular.

The Executive is pursuing the Workplace 2010 initiative, to sell and lease back its office accommodation, and the outsourcing of its human relations function to a consortium headed by Fujitsu – regarded as a 'pathfinder' project for the British civil service.

Finance Minister Peter Robinson has also launched his own scheme to generate savings, the Performance and Efficiency Delivery Unit, which will recommend new ways to get public bodies to work better.

The big question now hanging over the Executive is whether ministers are being sensible in taking time to bed radical proposals in, learning from the mistakes of public service reform in Britain, or whether they are simply avoiding difficult decisions.

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, former head of the Northern Ireland civil service, secretary to a previous power-sharing executive and an earlier victims commissioner, told Public Finance that rejecting the most politically difficult options in governments may be a symptom of an underlying flaw in the new arrangements.

'I have been concerned from the outset of the constitutional arrangement that it has stringent requirements for consensus on divisive issues,' he said. 'It undoubtedly means that in a contentious area you are obliged to go for consensus. I think the issue of the victims commissioner illustrates that.'

Nor will things quickly get easier, suggested Bloomfield. 'We are beginning to see the first stresses and strains. I think we have ended up with a constitution which is very difficult to work. But the only alternative is direct rule, which is even worse.

'We have got a kind of constitutional crutch – and hopefully in the future we will learn to walk.'



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