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Undermining devolution

The post-Brexit expansion of UK Government departments in Northern Ireland could potentially undermine devolution, a senior MLA has stated.

The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole MLA was commenting after the formal opening of the UK Government’s ‘hub’ in Belfast in October 2022.

The eight-storey Erskine House, in Belfast’s Chichester Street, became home to approximately 100 Northern Ireland Office staff in February 2022, following an announcement that it was relocating away from Stormont to “become a more accessible, open and modern Civil Service department”.

The building, mostly occupied by approximately 2,000 staff of HMRC, is also home to the Competition and Markets Authority.

In March 2022, the UK Government’s Department of International Trade (DIT), became operational at Erskine House, describing itself as “a new government department in Northern Ireland”. The Department currently has fewer than 20 employees but plans to have up to 75 staff located in Belfast by 2030.

The UK Government has confirmed that there are around 20 Cabinet Office officials and 30 staff of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities now operating at Erskine House.

agendaNi understands that the Cabinet Office presence includes senior figures from within Cabinet Office Finance, Civil Service, HR, and the Geospatial Commission.

Erskine House is one of four similar offices being established across the UK, following an announcement by then-UK Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss MP in 2021, with others in Darlington, Cardiff, and Edinburgh.

The UK Internal Market Act, signed into law in December 2020, centralised powers previously exercised in Brussels to Whitehall, rather than dividing them up to the devolved nations.

Criticism levelled at the move suggested a “power grab” had taken place, and argued that responsibility, which is not specifically reserved, not automatically passing to the devolved administrations, represents a roll back on devolution.

The Internal Markets Act enables a UK Minister to provide “financial assistance for economic development etc”, out of money provided by Parliament, to a whole range of economic areas including infrastructure, housing, health facilities, and for economic development. This means that UK officials will have power to invest centralised levelling-up funding without the need for approval of devolved assemblies or ministers.

The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole MLA commented on the move, describing it as “increasingly strange” to see UK departments with no direct remit for Northern Ireland setting up offices in Northern Ireland.

“The Northern Ireland Office has a role to play in the institutions here and it is important that they have a presence, but as a region with a devolved settlement I am concerned at the potential to undermine that.

“We have seen the UK Government pass legislation in the wake of Brexit which allows them to make decisions on devolved affairs without the approval of local ministers, so I do not have much faith that they are willing to respect [devolved] governments in other parts of the UK.”

UK Government departments present in Erskine House

HMRC: Approximately 2,000 employees
Northern Ireland Office: Approximately 100 employees
Competition and Markets Authority: Fewer than 20 employees
Cabinet Office: Fewer than 20 employees
Department for International Trade: Fewer than 20 employees
Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities: Fewer than 30 employees Source: HMRC

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