Northern Ireland news

Watchdog audit of NI Civil Service to be completed next year

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

A WATCHDOG audit of the NI Civil Service sparked by RHI inquiry revelations is to be completed next year.

The audit was planned by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) after the north's chief civil servant sparked controversy in 2018 over testimony to the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry.

David Sterling, the then head of the civil service, admitted that 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.

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.

FOI laws give people a right of access to an array of information held by public bodies.

The watchdog issued a series of recommendations to improve practices within NICS.

The ICO last year postponed its proposed audit pending the restoration of devolved government at Stormont.

With the power-sharing executive having returned earlier this year, the watchdog confirmed its audit would resume.

A spokeswoman said: "We advised the NICS in 2018 on the need to improve records management across the departments. Since then, it has developed new procedures.

"Audits should be completed by the end of January 2021."

Mr Sterling - who received a knighthood in last week's birthday honours - retired as Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service at the end of August. Stormont has yet to appoint his successor.

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