Political leaders in Northern Ireland have accused the Secretary of State of employing delaying tactics to frustrate compensation payments for abuse victims.
Karen Bradley faced criticism after she asked the main Stormont parties to answer a fresh batch of questions on draft legislation, only days after asking them to respond to an initial four queries.
Compensation payments recommended by a Stormont-commissioned inquiry have been on ice for two-and-a-half years due to the collapse of the devolved institutions and Mrs Bradley has been under mounting pressure to sanction the outstanding payments.
Facing calls to resign by abuse survivors, last week she pledged to legislate at Westminster but only once fundamental questions about the redress scheme were answered by the Stormont parties.
The parties formulated a joint response to those questions and presented it to the Government on Monday ahead of a roundtable meeting with Mrs Bradley.
During that meeting in Belfast, Mrs Bradley informed the political leaders she needs answers to a further 11 questions before she can proceed.
The Conservative MP, who was scheduled to meet abuse survivors later on Monday, did not specify what those questions were during the meeting at the Stormont Hotel, instead pledging that her officials would later circulate them to the parties.
The development drew an angry response from local politicians.
Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said: “I think it’s just not good enough.
“If there are 15 questions, why do we need to wait for Karen Bradley to decide to release the questions?
“These are not insurmountable issues – to me it’s more of a delaying tactic.”
She predicted that victims would be “devastated” by the latest delay.
Mrs Bradley insisted she was committed to resolving the issues as soon as possible.
“I am very grateful that the party leaders came together this morning and addressed some of the questions that are outstanding,” she said.
“But there are more questions and the Executive Office (Stormont’s lead department) will be sending those questions to the party leaders shortly and they have all given me their commitment that they will work to address those questions as soon as possible.
“Because I want to see redress for those victims of historical institutional abuse as quickly as possible and we need those fundamental questions to be answered.”
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann criticised the move.
“I think that’s stalling tactics and it’s something we are very disappointed in,” he said.
“The parties did express their frustrations that what we were told we needed to answer, we actually had answered.
“There is a commitment now from the six parties to move – as soon as we get told what the questions are the Secretary of State actually needs answered so she can legislate.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood accused Mrs Bradley of “disgraceful behaviour”.
“It’s unfortunate now we are being asked to answer more questions,” he said.
“But we’ll do it, we will get on with that and make sure there are no excuses left for this Secretary of State, who has tried to use these victims as a political pawn, which is totally and utterly disgraceful.
“This has been a mess, it has been a total mess.
“The Secretary of State has used this issue and these people, who have been suffering and waiting far too long. It’s just wrong what has happened here.”
Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said the development was evidence of “shifting goalposts” by the Government.
“People are wanting to get this over the line, looking for certainty, and just as perhaps you feel as one set of problems or questions have been addressed, other issues seem to pop up and that just adds to the growing sense of frustration,” he said.
“But I think if everyone just sits down and hammers this out, this can be resolved.”
He added: “In no way, shape or form should victims be used as pawns in the political process so this has to be resolved one way or the other.”
The questions arise from a public consultation on draft legislation for the redress scheme.
Mrs Bradley has said it is important the local parties give their response to those issues before she can proceed with tabling a final Bill.
Dozens of victims have died without receiving compensation that was recommended by the wide-ranging inquiry that reported just before devolution imploded in January 2017.
A redress scheme, in which victims would have been paid between £7,500 and £100,000, was one of the recommendations of the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry (HIA).
The initial four questions for the parties included a proposal that the minimum payment should be increased from £7,500 to £10,000 and that relatives of deceased victims should receive 100% of the compensation due to their loved ones, not 75% as originally proposed by the HIA.