Northern Ireland news

Watchdog to audit NI Civil Service over David Sterling's FOI remarks

Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling, and information commissioner Elizabeth Denham

A WATCHDOG is to undertake an audit of the Northern Ireland Civil Service following concerns after its lead official admitted some meetings were not minuted to avoid Freedom of Information disclosures.

David Sterling sparked controversy after saying 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 to the RHI inquiry in March were branded "scandalous", and the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said it would be contacting him "as a matter of urgency".

It has now emerged the ICO will carry out an audit of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) to assess its compliance with FOI legislation.

In a letter to Mr Sterling, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham expressed "deep concern" over his comments to the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry.

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Ms Denham said FOI laws already include exemptions to give public bodies a 'safe space' for internal discussions.

"To purposefully avoid taking minutes of meetings or recording decisions to provide that safe space is both unnecessary and frustrates the principles of openness, accountability and transparency which lie behind FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]," she said.

"Effective records creation and management is the cornerstone of the legislation and I am concerned that practices in the Northern Ireland Civil Service could be falling short of what is expected of the codes of practice issued under sections 45 and 46 of FOIA. In turn this could be having an impact on the level of general compliance with FOIA.

"Given the concerns highlighted above I request that my office undertake an audit under section 47(3) of FOIA – to assess whether the practice of the NI Civil Service conforms with the codes of practice under sections 45 and 46 of FOIA."

Responding to the letter, NICS head Mr Sterling said: "I would very much welcome discussion on the issues to which I alluded in my evidence so that we can both have a full and informed understanding of the position, which I believe is more complex than the surrounding commentary may have suggested, and of your own concerns. This could also usefully explore your proposal for an audit."

The correspondence, sent in March, was disclosed to The Irish News following an FOI request to the ICO.

An ICO spokeswoman yesterday said: "We have engaged with NICS to identify some initial steps needed to improve records management across the service.

"Once these steps are complete we will undertake an audit to assess the position."

An Executive Office spokesman said: "Discussions have taken place between The Executive Office and the Information Commissioner's Office on these matters with a commitment to further dialogue."

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

Mr Sterling told the RHI inquiry the practice of taking minutes had lapsed after devolution when engagement between civil servants and Stormont executive ministers became more regular and the pace of life 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."

Later, in response to correspondence from Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill, Mr Sterling said he was never asked not to take minutes of meetings by any of the ministers he worked for.

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