Northern Ireland Government spends £7 million on consultants

04 August 2020 3 min. read

The Government of Northern Ireland has spent £7 million on consultancy fees over a three-year period, according to the results of a Freedom of Information request. The figure represents a large fall from previous figures, however the majority of the payments took place while the Northern Irish Parliament was not sitting, prompting questions of transparency and accountability about the contracts.

The spending of public funds on private consulting firms remains a popular bone of contention among governments and citizens across the world. While governments often claim that the amount spent on consultants is dwarfed by the amount of money they help to save, hiring external experts for any amount of money amid a decade of stringent austerity, and cuts to public services has always been controversial.

In the UK in 2018, for example, HMRC spending on consultants was found to have risen by 9,000%, while customer service plummeted – prompting calls from Parliamentarians for an investigation into the tax authority’s growing dependence on external advisors. Meanwhile, in the Republic of Ireland in 2017, government departments provoked criticism, having racked up a €12 million bill on contracts to external consultants, with just three departments accounting for most of the expenditure.

Northern Ireland Government spends £7 million on consultants

In Northern Ireland, the devolved institutions of government have been working to reduce their spending on consulting after encountering such resistance. In the three years following the resurrection of Northern Ireland’s Assembly in Stormont, in 2010, it was reported that £47 million had been spent on consultants. Between 2011 and 2015, this had fallen to around £20 million according to The Irish News, indicating that some progress had been made on the matter.

Now, the BBC has revealed that consulting spending by Northern Ireland’s Government fell to £7 million over a three-year period. In figures released to BBC News NI following a Freedom of Information request, during the three year period, consultants were hired across government for projects in a range of areas, including accounting, media handling, legal, housing and planning, welfare, and infrastructure projects. The biggest spender was the Department for Communities, which paid out £2.35 million – more than half of which went to Big Four firm EY.

Following years of austerity cuts, the country’s civil service is notably depleted – and as is the case with the central UK Government, this has seen many departments look to paper over the cracks with private sector contractors. To this end, the Departments of Finance and Economy had the next highest spends at £1.72 million and £1.25 million respectively.

However, while the figures appear to continue the trend of a shrinking consulting spend from Northern Ireland’s Government, the payments were made between 2016-17 and 2018-19. For most of this period, Stormont was not sitting, after the power-sharing coalition the Assembly depends upon fell apart in January 2017.

Following the bitter row between the DUP and Sinn Féin over the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, the contracts for these consultants would have been fulfilled without their say-so. With the Stormont Executive only re-established in January of 2020, critics will suggest this spending of public funds took place without any form of public mandate.