Taking the helm: Permanent secretary Peter May

Peter May was announced as the Department of Justice’s (DoJ) new permanent secretary in September 2018, switching from the same role within the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) and taking up his third permanent secretary position. A graduate of Oxford University and an English native, May made headlines in 2017 when his decision to grant planning permission to the Arc21 incinerator project was overturned by the High Court.

May took up the post last year, succeeding the retired Nick Perry, whose tenure included AccessNI becoming the UK’s first criminal checking service to offer digital certificates, the ‘On the Run’ letters scandal and a sustained period of prison reform. May himself was succeeded at DfI by Katrina Godfrey, formerly of the Executive Office.

May’s new position is his third permanent secretary post, having held the position within the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure prior to the DfI. He was also previously the Director of Business Transformation with Water Service Northern Ireland.

His tenure with the DoJ so far has seen him extend the tenure of Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice Brendan McGuigan, who had been due to step down from his post. McGuigan, who will pair his Chief Inspector post with oversight of the Police Ombudsman, until March, will now remain in situ until 29 November 2019, when Lesley Carroll will take over.

May’s move was revealed shortly after the Civil Service’s announcement of new permanent secretaries that included Sue Gray, Noel Lavery and Denis McMahon taking up the posts in the finance, economy and agriculture departments respectively.

In the absence of Executive ministers, departmental permanent secretaries have come under increased scrutiny as they are now responsible for what decisions can be made. The lack of clarity over what decisions could and could not be made without a minister was best illustrated by May’s decision to grant planning permission to the Arc21 incinerator project in Belfast when at the DfI.

The project had been turned down in 2015 by then-Minister for Environment Mark H Durkan, but the Planning Appeals Commission had approved the project and May made the decision to greenlight the incinerator. When this was challenged in the High Court, Judge Keegan had said that the lack of ministerial direction when the decision was undertaken was enough to “sound the death knell” on the project. This decision prompted Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions Bill that granted extra powers to civil servants.

Still amidst the uncertain atmosphere caused by a lack of ministerial direction, May’s main challenges within the DoJ will be: the implementation of measures to cut back on avoidable delay within the justice system; the continued reform of the prison system, the temporary nature of some of the PSNI’s senior management team; the approaching retirement of PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton in June 2019; the execution of actions under the Racial Equality Strategy and Tackling Paramilitarism Action Plan; and the deliverance of the Together: Building a United Community scheme.

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