Departmental reshuffle

With the structure of Stormont’s departments set to change following May’s election, agendaNi takes a look at the roles and responsibilities of the nine new departments.

One of the commitments in the Executive’s Programme for Government that expired in March 2015 was to agree changes to the structures of the Stormont Executive which will operate in the next Assembly mandate. The Stormont House Agreement took this commitment one step further with the agreement that the number of departments should be reduced from the current 12 to nine in time for May’s election.

Last year, party leaders discussed the changes in an implementation group that was set up to follow through on the Stormont House Agreement. Further to these discussions, the Executive discussed departmental reorganisation extensively at the start of 2015 and the Departments Bill is currently awaiting royal assent. 

The outcome of these discussion was agreement on the names of the nine new government departments, they are:

•   The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs;

•   The Department for Communities;

•   The Department for Economy;

•   The Department of Education;

•   The Department of Finance;

•   The Department of Health;

•   The Department for Infrastructure;

•   The Department of Justice;

•   The Executive Office. 

Responsibilities

The responsibilities of these new departments has been outlined ahead of the introduction of the legislation required to bring about these changes. It is envisaged that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs will take on most of the existing functions of the present Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. It will also assume responsibility for the inland fisheries functions that currently belong to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure as well as most of the current Department of the Environment’s environmental functions. The new department will also take on policy responsibility for sustainable strategy that currently belongs to the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. 

The Department for Communities will, in effect, represent a merger of the Department for Social Development and the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure. The new department will be responsible for everything the two departments currently have responsibility for except for inland fisheries and waterways. It will also have responsibility for the Department for Employment and Learning’s employment service and the Department of the Environment’s responsibility for local government and built heritage. It will also assume responsibility from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister for the operational functions of the Social Investment Fund, racial equality, united communities and good relations policy, disability and poverty, gender and sexual orientation and North West sites and strategy. 

The new Department of the Economy will combine the functions of Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department for Employment and Learning, except for the employment service, which will be the responsibility of the newly formed Department for Communities. The Department of Education will continue with the existing roles and responsibilities it currently has, together with a range of children’s services, including assuming policy responsibility for the childcare, children and young people’s strategies from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. Whilst child protection policy will remain with the Department of Health, the definition of children’s services transferring to the new department will need to be further defined in the legislation. 

The Department of Finance will continue with its existing functions but will also assume responsibility for the government advertising unit and the NI Direct central editorial team from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. The newly formed Department for Infrastructure will take control of the Department for Regional Development’s current responsibilities but will also take on a range of responsibilities that the Department of the Environment currently has responsibility for, such as vehicle registration and road safety. It will also take responsibility for the rivers agency, inland waterways, the strategic investment unit and several regeneration sites, including the Crumlin Road Gaol. Similarly, the Department of Justice will resemble its current guise but also take responsibility for public safety from the current Department of Health Social Services and Public Safety and the support function for the planning appeals commissions and water commission from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. 

The Office of the First and Deputy First Minister is not left untouched by this change and will now be given the title of the Executive Office. As already noted, it will shed most of its delivery functions to other departments. It will however, retain its role in support of the Executive and the central institutions, including co-ordination of the Programme for Government, international relations, civil contingencies and the Executive Information Service. 

The Executive Office will also retain policy responsibility and coordination in relation to equality, good relations, the Together: Building a United Community Strategy and Delivering Social Change. Key institutions such as the Attorney General’s Office, the Equality Commission and the Commissioner for Public Appointments will remain untouched by these proposed changes.

However, despite these discussions and the production of this concept, time is running out to pass these changes into law before May’s Assembly’s election. 

Bill progress

Despite the announcement last March by then First Minster Peter Robinson MLA that the Departments Bill would be presented to the Assembly after the Easter recess, the bill has still not appeared before the Assembly. On 19 October 2015 Roy Beggs MLA asked acting First Minister Arlene Foster MLA for an update on the legislation and when the Assembly will have an opportunity to consider and debate the issue. 

In response to the question the then acting First Minster Foster acknowledged that the bill will need to be brought before the Assembly and despite providing no indication of an immediate introduction she did confirm that the bill had been drafted and that detailed work on the transfer of functions order is also at “an advanced stage.” She also confirmed that the Department of Finance and Personnel are planning budgetary provisions for the nine departments instead of 12.

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