Parts of North's government 'virtually untouched by devolution'

Parts of North's government 'virtually untouched by devolution'

Devolution has made little difference to how parts of the North’s government are run, a new book from the University of Ulster has claimed.

Quangos and public bodies have been virtually untouched while decision-making is made on the basis of the barest agreements between the parties, Professor Derek Birrell added.

The ministerial Executive’s blocking mechanism has made progress much slower than under direct rule and hold-ups have frustrated civil servants and the public, the academic said.

In the publication, Direct Rule and the Governance of Northern Ireland, Mr Birrell acknowledged greater democratic accountability and more inclusive government since May 2007.

“Devolution has made little difference to the large role and scope of the powers of quangos or public bodies in the governance of Northern Ireland,” he said.

Agreeing a community relations strategy, a replacement for the transfer test for pupils aged 11 and treatment of victims of the conflict are dividing key government partners Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party.

By 2011 local government minister Edwin Poots wants to reduce the number of local councils and give them enhanced powers while there are plans to cut quangos.

The DUP hopes to reduce government departments and the number of Assembly members.

Mr Birrell said: “Devolution provides less cohesive government, not based on collective responsibility. It has brought a lack of decision making or generalised statements with no agreed underpinning ideology and decisions made on a lowest common denominator basis or by ministerial bargaining.

“There is also limited evidence of efficient government. The Executive’s complex and rigid decision-making procedures and blocking mechanism has led to much slower decision-making than under direct rule and hold-ups have been frustrating for civil servants, the media and the public.

“It has also led to poorer service provision than in the rest of Great Britain.”

He said direct rule had left a legacy of quangos which future devolved governments will have difficulty moving away from.

“There is little evidence of the devolved administration moving to reduce the functions of quangos or making them more responsive to local communities,” he added.

“There has also been little difference between the two systems in the outcome for reform of local government.”

Meanwhile, it emerged today £348,000 (€377,815) was spent on a website for accessing government services.

SDLP Assembly member Patsy McGlone obtained the information following a written question.

Development of the NI Direct website began in December 2008 with the site going live, on target, on March 31, 2009, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson confirmed.

The cost of developing the site including preparatory work was included.

Mr McGlone said: “This is money that could have been better spent. It is a bit of a gold-plated website which is almost a replica of an already established direct government website in Britain.

“I wonder what the excessive costs were in preparing something that was almost a copycat website of something already in existence.”

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