TUV leader Jim Allister has said that he will take advantage of a Freedom of Information ruling in an attempt to force a response from Stormont departments who have refused to answer 103 of his Assembly questions.
The North Antrim MLA said that he would re-submit each of the questions as Freedom of Information (FoI) requests after the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ruling which was reported in yesterday’s News Letter.
The ICO dismissed an attempt by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s department (OFMDFM) to retain documents which relate to questions on which they cannot agree an answer.
The ministers claimed that for officials to release draft answers to unanswered Assembly questions would “undermine” the Assembly. But the commissioner rejected their arguments.
Written Assembly questions are meant to be answered within 10 days but some lie unanswered for months or more than a year with no Assembly sanction.
The ICO’s ruling opens up a legally-enforceable route – backed up by the possibility of High Court action – to force responses to questions which the Assembly has proved incapable of seeing answered.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone has already resorted to using FoI requests in an attempt to force answers to questions where the Assembly is unable make ministers respond.
Yesterday Mr Allister welcomed the Information Commissioner’s decision against OFDMFM. The North Antrim MLA said that the department was “notorious” for failing to answer Assembly questions and said that the Assembly Speaker, Willie Hay, had been unable to “rein them in”.
He said that out of 103 Assembly questions of his own which remain unanswered, more than half involve the top Stomont department.
He said that the OFMDFM had attempted to use its “deliberate refusal to answer some Assembly questions” as a “reason not to meet their FoI obligations”.
“I’m glad the Information Commissioner has exposed and rejected this duplicity,” he said.
“Some Stormont ministers are deliberate and serial abusers of the rules on answering Assembly questions and consciously ignore the 10-day rule set out in Assembly Standing Orders. While Stormont and the Speaker can’t rein them in, I’m glad the Information Commissioner is taking them on.
“I now propose to have all my unanswered Assembly Questions tabled as FoI requests and thereby take advantage of this ICO ruling.”