Northern Ireland’s Comptroller and Auditor General, Dorinnia Carville, has today (Thursday 27 April 2023) published a report on ‘Ministerial Directions in Northern Ireland’.
Ministerial Directions are formal instructions from ministers directing their Permanent Secretary (Accounting Officer) to proceed, despite objections, with a spending proposal. Permanent Secretaries are directly accountable to the NI Assembly for how their department spends its money, and should seek a Ministerial Direction if they consider a spending proposal breaches any of the following circumstances:
- Regularity – if the proposal is outside the legal powers, NI Assembly consents, or Department of Finance delegations;
- Propriety - if the proposal breaches NI Assembly control procedures; and/or
- Poor value for money – if an alternative proposal, or doing nothing, could deliver better value for money.
Today’s report provides a factual overview of the Ministerial Directions process in Northern Ireland, and how it has operated since records began in 1998.
The report notes a total of 105 Ministerial Directions. Nearly half of these (51), representing total budgeted expenditure of approximately £1.4 billion, were issued in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, when Ministers and Departments were seeking to release critical funds into the local economy at a time of great need.
It also provides some high-level comparisons of the use of Ministerial Directions by other UK governments, indicating that they have been significantly more prevalent in Northern Ireland. The report recommends that the Department of Finance gives further consideration to the potential reasons for this.
Commenting on the report Mrs Carville said:
“The Ministerial Direction process in Northern Ireland is a critical control mechanism for Ministers and their Permanent Secretaries in the management and accountability of public funds. It is important to emphasise that the use of Ministerial Directions does not preclude the responsibility of public servants to exercise good governance, decision making and financial management in their delivery.
As well as making some factual observations in relation to the frequency of Ministerial Directions, particularly since 2020, my report makes a small number of recommendations. If acted upon, these will help further improve the transparency around their use and the efficiency of the reporting process to the Assembly, the C&AG, and ultimately the public.”