NIO wants 'more than £600' to list Karen Bradley's meetings over past 14 months
A FORMER Stormont minister has accused the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) of using a "disingenuous excuse" after claiming it would cost more than £600 to detail the secretary of state's engagements over the past 14 months.
The NIO told The Irish News it would take a member of its staff more than three-and-a-half days to compile a list of the events that Karen Bradley has attended since being appointed secretary of state in January last year.
The response to a freedom of information request comes as DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said Mrs Bradley "had not been as out there in terms of getting across the people in Northern Ireland".
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The North Belfast MP said the secretary of state "obviously has had her problems and difficulties" and he described the NIO as a "dysfunctional department".
"I think that Karen has, perhaps, not been as out there in terms of getting across the people in Northern Ireland, talking to them, meeting with groups and all the rest of it, as some of her predecessors," he told The House magazine.
"I know that, however, Brexit and the votes here has meant that maybe she hasn’t had as much time. But her basic policy approach has been flawed in the sense that she has decided that Northern Ireland could just stand still, leave it to the civil servants."
Mr Dodds said Mrs Bradley had "not taken a grip and shown the leadership that she should have".
His criticism comes a fortnight after the secretary of state faced widespread calls to resign after claiming killings by the security forces during the Troubles were "not crimes".
She later apologised twice for the gaffe.
Previously, Mrs Bradley said that before taking-up her current post, she was unaware that "people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa".
Amid growing criticism of the secretary of state, The Irish News sought a list of her engagements, including attending Remembrance Sunday in Belfast, meetings with business and community groups in November and going to the All-Ireland football final between Tyrone and Dublin in September.
However, the NIO refused the request on the grounds that it required too much manpower.
"Freedom of information law allows us to decline to answer FOI requests when we estimate it would cost us more than £600 – equivalent to 3.5 working days’ worth of work, calculated at £25 per hour – to identify, locate, extract and then provide the information that has been asked for in a request," the response said.
"We have made the decision to decline your request on this basis, as to comply with the request and to enable us to identify whether we hold any such material, officials would be required to open and read a large amount of different records individually stored in a number of locations, and given the broad scope of your request we consider this would cost over £600."
Former justice minister David Ford described the reply as a "disingenuous excuse".
"Ministerial diaries are held electronically and always understood to be subject to FOI requests," he said.
What is in a diary is unlikely to be sensitive and confidential in itself, even if the content and agenda of meetings are, however, it is simply a matter of someone going through it and redacting anything sensitive, which should take a minimum of time and effort to do."