Northern Ireland news

Special advisers won't vet FOIs says Stormont department

Ex-DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford at the RHI inquiry
Brendan Hughes

STORMONT special advisers will have no role in vetting Freedom of Information (FOI) responses, a department has said after it emerged Arlene Foster's former aide was involved in blocking their release.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) had operated a policy whereby FOI responses needed approval from the minister's special adviser (Spad) before they could be published.

A backlog of 32 unpublished FOIs was discovered by departmental officials when they carried out a review following Stormont's collapse in the wake of the RHI scandal.

FOI legislation gives people a right of access to an array of information held by public bodies and requires them to respond to requests within 20 working days.

But it emerged that some requests to Daera remained unpublished for up to nine months.

Andrew Crawford was DUP leader Mrs Foster's Spad at the time of the Renewable Heat Incentive's launch, and was accused of delaying cost controls. He denies wrongdoing.

In 2016 he was Spad to then Daera minister Michelle McIlveen. Around seven responses in the FOI backlog would have been due for release while Mr Crawford was still a Daera Spad.

Mr Crawford later advised the DUP on Brexit policy, but is no longer employed by the party.

The FOI backlog emerged after The Irish News asked Daera why it took seven months to respond to a request about ex-DUP minister Paul Givan controversially lighting a bonfire.

The FOI uncovered emails in which a senior Stormont environmental official said Mr Givan's actions in Co Tyrone in July 2016 were considered "an offence".

Environment Agency staff investigated and Mr Givan was given "advice" as part of a "proportional response".

When the FOI backlog was eventually released last year by civil servants, it revealed correspondence showing how Mr Crawford told Stormont press officers not to respond to Irish News queries about his role in vetting FOI requests.

Daera was asked whether, in the restored Stormont government, Spads will continue to approve FOI responses for release. The department was also asked how it intends to address concerns over Spads vetting FOI responses for publication.

In a statement a Daera spokesman said: "Daera will process FOI requests under the appropriate legislation, including associated timescales. Spads are not involved in the approval of FOIs."

Of the other departments, finance and communities said the ministers' Spads have no involvement in the clearance of FOIs.

The education, health and infrastructure departments did not answer the questions, saying instead that all FOIs "will be dealt with in line with the legislation".

The justice department said the minister's Spad has "no role" in the FOI process, "except where dictated by the FOI Act (e.g. if the Section 36 exemption is engaged)".

The first and deputy first ministers' office and the economy department did not respond to requests for a comment.

Stormont parties have pledged greater scrutiny of Spads following concerns over their conduct and accountability in the wake of the RHI inquiry.

A formal announcement on who will take up the influential posts have been delayed until this week.

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