Northern Ireland news

Watchdog probe over RHI inquiry revelations shelved 'until devolution restored'

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

A watchdog probe into the NI Civil Service which was ordered following "scandalous" RHI inquiry revelations has been shelved until Stormont is restored.

The audit was planned by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) after the north's chief civil servant sparked controversy over testimony to the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry.

David Sterling admitted that when devolved government at Stormont was still in place, some meetings were not minuted to avoid Freedom of Information (FOI) disclosures.

He said the DUP and Sinn Féin were "sensitive to criticism" and it was sometimes "safer" not to have a record which might be released through FOI requests.

His comments last year were branded "scandalous", and the ICO said it would be contacting him "as a matter of urgency".

Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham later wrote to Mr Sterling saying that "to purposefully avoid taking minutes of meetings or recording decisions... frustrates the principles of openness, accountability and transparency".

She said that "given the concerns... I request that my office undertake an audit" to assess whether the NI Civil Service (NICS) complies with FOI legislation.

However, ICO has since confirmed this audit has been shelved for the foreseeable future.

An ICO spokeswoman said "the decision was taken to postpone the proposed audit, pending the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive".

Northern Ireland has not had a functioning Stormont executive with ministers making decisions since power-sharing collapsed in early 2017 in the wake of the RHI scandal.

The public inquiry into the botched green energy scheme exposed a litany of problems at political and ministerial level, but also within the operations of the civil service.

Some parties have been calling for a procedural overhaul of the institutions before Stormont is restored.

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said the RHI inquiry "shone a light into dark corners" and described the delay in the ICO's audit as "disappointing".

"The ICO is independent of the civil service so I can see no reason for this audit to be postponed. Indeed, it would be an advantage to have the audit completed and recommendations ready for the restoration of the assembly and executive," he said.

"A restored executive should give a clear and unambiguous commitment to full accountability and transparency in all decision-making."

The ICO defended the delay in carrying out its probe.

"Our interest arose when it was suggested that ministerial decisions were not being recorded on a routine basis. We cannot therefore audit revised procedures until an executive is in place," a spokeswoman said.

FOI legislation 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 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.

The information commissioner Elizabeth Denham met with Mr Sterling in September last year following the controversy.

She wrote to him the following month outlining a series of recommendations to improve practices within NICS.

These included "regular information governance training for all staff"; keeping a record of "all key decisions, and the rationale behind them"; and ensuring "integrity in the use of new communication technologies".

"I now have greater confidence that the leaders of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland are committed to improving practice," she said in her seven-page letter, obtained by The Irish News through an FOI request.

"Taking the opportunity now to review and revise procedures during the suspension of the NI Executive with an aim to implement them in advance of its re-establishment will, I anticipate, result in much more effective governance in future."

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