Northern Ireland news

Concern over 'scandalous' admission that some Stormont meetings were not minuted

David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, at the RHI inquiry on Tuesday
Brendan Hughes

A WATCHDOG is to contact "as a matter of urgency" Stormont's chief civil servant after he admitted some meetings were not minuted in order to avoid Freedom of Information (FOI) disclosures.

David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, said the DUP and Sinn Féin were "sensitive to criticism" and it was "safer" not to have a record which might be released through FOI requests.

His comments during the RHI inquiry were yesterday branded "scandalous" and the two largest parties faced calls to explain his claims.

Sinn Féin insisted its ministers would "under no circumstances" instruct civil servants not to record minutes.

The DUP said it would not comment while the Renewable Heat Incentive probe continues.

The inquiry was set up after the flawed green energy initiative ran significantly over budget. The political fallout led to the executive's collapse over a year ago.

On Tuesday, Mr Sterling told the inquiry that the practice of taking minutes had lapsed after devolution when engagement between civil servants and ministers became more regular and the pace of work increased.

He added: "The two main parties have been sensitive to criticism and I think it is in that context that as senior civil service we got into the habit of not recording all meetings on the basis that it is safer sometimes not to have a record that for example might be released under Freedom of Information."

FOI legislation was introduced in 2000 and gives the media and public a right of access to an array of information held by public bodies.

The Information Commissioner's Office, which regulates FOI compliance, said: "We are aware of statements made in the inquiry, which indicate that certain practices in the Northern Ireland Civil Service have been adopted to frustrate Freedom of Information requests.

"We will be contacting the head of the civil service to raise our concerns as a matter of urgency."

Alliance MLA and former justice minister David Ford said: "If there was a policy by the two biggest parties to not have matters recorded, there was a duty on the civil service to say that is not how the civil service operates and things must be recorded."

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan described it as a "scandalous contortion of standard practice".

TUV leader Jim Allister said he was "not that shocked", but added: "There are clearly fundamental questions now for the DUP, Sinn Féin and the Northern Ireland Civil Service to answer."

A Sinn Féin spokeswoman said: "The civil service have a responsibility to adhere to their own protocols and, under no circumstances, would any Sinn Féin minister instruct a civil service official not to record minutes or carry out the functions of their job."

A DUP spokesman said: "It would not be appropriate to comment on evidence given the public inquiry outside of the inquiry process."

In 2016, The Irish News reported how FOI campaigners had expressed concern over responses only being released in some executive departments upon approval from ministers' special advisers.

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