As a minister, Arlene Foster has to lead and not just pass problems to officials

Alliance's deputy leader Stephen Farry MLA. 
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Paemaker
Alliance's deputy leader Stephen Farry MLA. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Paemaker

In defending her role in the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, Arlene Foster has been arguing that she did everything correctly as a Minister, and has instead sought to pass on responsibility and blame to the civil servants and others.

As such she is presenting herself as not displaying much leadership or even curiosity over what was happening with the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment during her tenure as Minister.

This may constitute a deflection from other explanations and factors in the ever growing RHI scandal, but if taken at face value, it amounts to a very literal, minimal and passive approach to Ministerial office, perhaps more in keeping with the style under Direct Rule than the much more hands-on and accountable approach that was supposed to be the added value of devolution.

Ultimately, a Minister is responsible for the direction and control of his or her Department. It is the Minister that speaks on all aspects of the work of the Department, both policy and operational, and is accountable to the relevant legislature.

A very rigid distinction between policy development and implementation that is hard to defend in the real world and doesn’t square with the wider accountability aspect for all aspects of the Department. The specific Accounting Officer accountability responsibilities that are vested in the Permanent Secretary do not negate the wider responsibility of a Minister to the legislature, in the media and with other stakeholders. All Ministers will answer Assembly Questions, questions from committees, and issues on the floor of the Assembly which are strictly speaking operational issues.

There are other emerging issues in relation to this scandal, especially relating to the nature of the handling of the closure of the scheme, but specific questions relate to her role in the design of the original scheme in policy terms, including the decision to diverge from the equivalent scheme in Great Britain, and to how complaints from whistle-blowers were handled.

In her rationales to date, the current First Minister, seems to be hiding behind arguments that it was for her officials to devise the scheme and to make recommendations to her, and that she did her duty in passing any whistle-blower complaints onto officials and to ask them to come back to her in the event of any issues raised deemed to be credible.

With regard to the first aspect that approach suggests a one-way process in terms of policy development with Ministers essentially being a final sign-off mechanism for the civil service. In my experience, there are many very dedicated and brilliant civil servants working in Northern Ireland. However, it is the role of Ministers to not only bring their headline list of priorities to the attention of their Departments but also to contribute to and scrutinise the detailed policy development process.

In terms of the second aspect, the DUP are now presenting what has to date been described as ‘whistleblower’ email as innocuous correspondence, but this sits at odds with Arlene Foster’s own interviews in which she talked about referring the matter to officials and asking them to come back if there were any serious issues.

While in the narrowest sense, Arlene Foster may have been correct to pass on any whistle-blower correspondence, she retained a duty to follow it up. Procedures should have been in place to capture this in any event, and in my experience anything that came to the Department was treated as Ministerial correspondence and required Ministerial sign-off to close the interaction out. However, procedures and systems are not infallible, and nothing should ever be ‘assumed’. All Ministers do manage a lot of paperwork, but it is disingenuous to suggest that we are deluged by whistle-blower complaints. I received my fair share, but they were not a daily or even a weekly occurrence. In any event, if the Minister reads the correspondence, then an implicit risk assessment should be conducted around which ones may carry widespread political or financial implications, and a Minister should be proactive in chasing persistent updates.

During my tenure in the Department for Employment and Learning, I and my special adviser introduced a weekly stocktake meeting with the Permanent Secretary and senior officials. We also had a monthly meeting with the senior officials in each division. Other issue-specific meetings occurred when necessary. To aid this, we had our rolling list of current policy and also key implementation issues that we worked to through these meetings. Something like the RHI whistle-blower allegation would have been captured by that process.

As a minimum in terms of restoring public confidence, Arlene Foster should publish all communications regarding policy submissions, Ministerial and Special Adviser comments, all whistle-blower allegations, and the full beneficiaries of the RHI scheme

• Stephen Farry MLA is a former Minister for Employment & Learning