Northern Ireland news

Civil servants net £18K freebies during impasse

Senior Stormont officials declared receiving almost £18,000 worth of gifts and hospitality in 2017/18
Brendan Hughes

RUGBY and GAA matches, hotel stays, canapé receptions and theatre shows are among the thousands of pounds worth of gifts and hospitality received by senior Stormont civil servants since the executive's collapse.

David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, enjoyed hospitality worth more than £1,100 within a year – including attendance at Six Nations and Guinness PRO14 rugby games, a Mariinsky Orchestra concert and a Northern Ireland Office-hosted garden party.

Health department permanent secretary Richard Pengelly accepted a £20 invitation from BT to 'An Evening with Rio Ferdinand', the sports pundit and former England footballer.

Two tickets to the McKenna Cup final were given by Ulster GAA to Department of Justice official Anthony Harbinson, while officials in the Department for Communities were invited to soccer events and received a Belfast Giants ice hockey shirt.

Senior Stormont officials declared receiving almost £18,000 worth of gifts and hospitality in 2017/18, according to registers published on departmental websites.

But with civil servants running Stormont without ministers since 2017, transparency concerns have been raised as some departments have not published updated registers for several years.

While the Department of Health gives quarterly updates, the economy, finance and agriculture departments last published figures for 2016/17, 2015/16 and 2013/14 respectively.

After being contacted by The Irish News, the Department of Finance moved to confirm it will publish by the end of next month its registers for the last three financial years.

Updates will then be published "on a quarterly basis on the Open Data portal going forward," a spokesman said.

The Department for the Economy (DfE) said it would release the most recent registers "shortly", but agreed to pre-release the 2017/18 register in an anonymised form.

Green Party leader Clare Bailey said a "renewed commitment to transparency and accountability across the board" is needed if Northern Ireland's devolved institutions are to be restored.

The north has not had a functioning government since the DUP and Sinn Féin-led executive fell apart in 2017 in the wake of the RHI scandal.

Fresh talks have been convened between the main parties in a bid to restore the executive and assembly.

"It's critical that our government departments operate in a transparent and accountable way," Ms Bailey said.

"It's more important than ever that civil servants are accountable and their dealings transparent as the Stormont stalemate continues."

The South Belfast MLA added: "However, a reluctance to embrace transparency extends beyond our civil service. Our political system has embraced secrecy for decades when it comes to donations and benefactors.

"There needs to be a renewed commitment to transparency and accountability across the board if we are to restore our institutions, make them sustainable and increase confidence in the system."

In 2017/18 senior officials in the Executive Office, headed by Mr Sterling in the absence of first and deputy first ministers, received the most in gifts and hospitality.

They were offered almost £11,000 of gifts and hospitality and accepted more than £4,500 worth.

The gifts come on top of civil servant salaries. The permanent secretary salary scale is around £114,000 to more than £133,000.

Only six of the nine executive departments have published registers online for at least up to 2017/18.

DfE said it deferred publication "due to the need to review the processing of personal data" in line with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

"The intention is to publish both the 2017/18 and 2018/19 registers shortly," a spokesman said, but agreed to release the 2017-18 register in an anonymised format.

An Executive Office spokeswoman said: "Civil servants are invited to a range of external engagements as part of their roles and responsibilities. An official accepting any invitation must do so in accordance with the Guidance on Gifts on Hospitality and must record it on the department's register."

The Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs said: "The department is currently finalising the 2018/19 gifts and hospitality register and will publish by the end of this month. Registers for retrospective years will be published as soon as is practicable."

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:: Some of the gifts and hospitality received by Stormont officials

THE largest gift received in 2017/18 was within the Department for the Economy (DfE).

In November 2017, then permanent secretary Andrew McCormick attended an awards ceremony and was presented with a horse and jockey statue on behalf of DMC Communications. The total package was valued at £1,050.

DfE said the statue was presented to the department at the JP McManus All Ireland Scholarship Awards in Limerick, and it remains in the possession of the department.

David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, accepted an invite from Ulster Rugby to an Ulster vs Leinster PRO14 match in October 2017, valued at around £60.

The Stormont chief also enjoyed a Six Nations game held in Dublin in March last year between Ireland and Scotland.

In September 2017, Mr Sterling and a guest attended a garden party hosted by Secretary of State Karen Bradley's department. Their refreshments were estimated to be worth £40.

He also attended the following month a reception and concert at a cost of around £40 by Russian orchestra Mariinsky.

Earlier in 2017, Mr Sterling's predecessor Malcolm McKibbin enjoyed drinks, canapés, dinner and a match valued at about £200 on behalf of Ulster Rugby.

He also accepted a book worth around £50 from the Chinese Consulate during a visit from a Chinese delegation.

An Executive Office official accepted from China Council Urban Development two nights of hotel accommodation in June 2017 valued at £120 as a speaker at their annual conference.

Officials from the Department of Communities also received tickets from the Irish Football Association to attend the Women's U19 Euros semi-final that summer.

Last year an official also accepted a Belfast Giants ice hockey shirt.

Health department permanent secretary Richard Pengelly in 2017 accepted an invite from BT to attend 'An Evening with Rio Ferdinand' at a cost of around £20.

Anthony Harbinson of the Department of Justice last year accepted from Ulster GAA two tickets to the McKenna Cup final between Tyrone and Donegal.

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