Civil Service Reform Needed

Writing to DUP members and supporters at the weekend, Party Leader Gavin Robinson outlined how Northern Ireland needed greater expertise within the Northern Ireland Civil Service and greater integration with the UK Home Civil Service.

By Gavin Robinson MP

Belfast East

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As unionists, we are focused on making Northern Ireland prosperous and improving the lives of people who live here.

Making Northern Ireland a successful and welcoming place for people to live, work and raise their family is a core part of strengthening and safeguarding our place within the United Kingdom.

It is the benefit people receive via our GPs, schools, roads and hospitals that has a real impact on the lives of people living here. These services create the conditions for businesses to thrive.

We want to protect the very best elements of our education system, whilst tackling the tail of underachievement which impacts on many communities. Our health service needs investment, but that won’t see a meaningful impact for patients unless the system undergoes real reform. Our transport, water and sewerage infrastructure all face significant challenges too.

These issues all require political vision, courage, and ambition to be achieved. Alongside that they need expertise and capacity from our civil servants to ensure any plan is delivered.

Comments this week from the Covid-19 inquiry are strikingly similar to those made during the RHI inquiry. Whilst most civil servants are striving to achieve the very best for the public, comment from some senior figures have not only been contemptuous towards elected representatives but highlight a continued lack of expertise within our local civil service to deliver the ambitious reform that schools, roads and hospitals require.

We recognised these problems previously and that is why reform of the Civil Service was a key target set out in the New Decade New Approach agreement from 2020.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service is different to its counterparts in Scotland and Wales. Whilst they serve their devolved administrations and have their own distinct regional focus, they are ultimately part of the overall UK Home Civil Service. The Northern Ireland Civil Service on the other hand, is a stand-alone body, distinct and separate from the UK Home Civil Service.

This means the Civil Service in the rest of the UK benefits from economies of scale in terms of the skills present within it. Personnel can move more easily within the system and bring specific expertise to projects where necessary.

In 2017, we secured funding through the Confidence and Supply agreement for the York Street Interchange. This is probably the single most important road junction in Northern Ireland, yet seven years later there has been no real progress.

Funding was secured for redevelopment of the A5 as far back as 2007 yet the upgrade still hasn’t started. That’s through a mismanagement of the process on environmental issues and a mismanagement of stakeholders, including those landowners who will be impacted by it.

I don’t believe that Northern Ireland is lacking in vision or ambition, but too often we have seen a scarcity of expertise within our public sector to make that vision a reality.

We sought to tackle this within the Safeguarding the Union command paper. That sets out a programme for skills exchange between the NICS and the UK Home Civil Service. Encouraging those secondments and movement across all parts of the UK may sound like a technical or even inconsequential move, but it not only mainstreams Northern Ireland more within the United Kingdom but can deliver real and meaningful benefits for the people living here.

Our objective is to fix the problems and build for the future. It is clear the NICS does not have the requisite expertise to deliver the radical reform or build the infrastructure needed for the next generation to succeed.

This will not be permitted to drift. We will be pressing for greater integration within the Home Civil Service and the recruitment of more external experts as senior leaders.

I am in the business of building a better Northern Ireland for everyone living here. That includes ensuring that we can deliver the kind of public services people here not only expect but deserve.

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