Political news

Stormont chiefs criticised for response to unpublished reports backlog

Stormont chiefs have declined to list the reports they have published since the collapse of the Executive despite normally needing ministerial sign-off
Brendan Hughes

STORMONT civil servants have been criticised for refusing to say which reports are being withheld from publication because there are no ministers to approve their release.

Officials have also declined to list the documents they have chosen to publish despite normally requiring ministerial sign-off.

It comes amid calls for a high-profile report completed almost a year ago on Northern Ireland's abortion laws to be made public.

Civil servants have come under pressure from campaigners to publish the report after deciding to disclose other government documents in the absence of an executive.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew criticised the departments' stance and urged them not to "cherry-pick report releases".

The Irish News asked each of the nine Stormont departments to outline which of the government documents published since the executive's collapse this year would normally require ministerial approval for release.

The departments were also asked for the number of reports currently being withheld because there are no ministers in place to approve their publication.

However, the departments each responded with the same statement – and declined further requests to answer the questions asked.

They said: "Decisions regarding the publication of reports in the absence of a minister are taken on a case-by-case basis.

"Reports which have been prepared to inform policy formulation and which will form the basis of advice to a minister to inform his/her decision-making will not be published in the absence of a minister."

Only one department – the Department of Education – did not respond at the time of going to press.

It recently published a report into the experiences of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) pupils at school that had remained under wraps for almost 17 months.

The report suggested that two-thirds of LGBT young people do not feel welcome or valued in their post-primary school, and almost half had experienced bullying due to their sexuality or gender identity.

At the time a spokeswoman said the department originally felt its release "should be cleared by a minister", but it later decided to publish "in light of the increasing volume of enquiries".

The abortion law report examined fatal foetal abnormality issues and is understood to recommend legislative change.

Stormont officials have said it should not be released "until it has been considered by the executive".

Mr Agnew expressed concern over the issue and called for the release of unpublished government reports.

"The lack of clarity around criteria for the release of a report is unhelpful," the North Down MLA said.

"The approach of the departments does not promote transparency. A minister may be needed to make a final decision, but a minister or civil servant shouldn't cherry-pick report releases.

"Public money funded these reports and they should be available to the public when completed.

"The political stalemate has created this situation. Hiatus helps no-one, particularly when a report provides evidence and recommendations on critical issues such as abortion law reform."

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