Weak Assembly must show it can scrutinise Executive

Morning View
Morning View

The introduction of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act almost a decade ago opened up many of the inner workings of government.

Where once only MPs or peers could quiz ministers in Parliament, now anyone could ask for information unless it was demonstrably sensitive, such as intelligence material.

Although Tony Blair came to regret introducing the transparency law and despite the evidence that it has led to some civil servants now committing less to paper, the law is generally seen as a successful legacy of Mr Blair’s Government and something which acts as a deterrent to corruption.

It is, however, remarkable that MLAs now find that they have greater rights to Executive information via the general public’s law — the FoI Act — than through their own established rules for tabling written Assembly questions.

Over recent years, it has become apparent that some departments have been reluctant to answer politically-sensitive questions from MLAs. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister has often shown a particular inability to respond within a reasonable time frame, something partly explained by that department having two ministers with radically different outlooks on many issues. The absence of any Assembly sanction has done nothing to force compliance.

Now it is clear that questions unanswered in the Assembly can be asked under FoI, with the threat of High Court action for non-compliance. That the FoI Act is more capable of compelling ministers to answer questions than the Stormont chamber which nominally holds them to account is appalling.

For the credibility of an Assembly which too often fails to challenge the Executive, the Speaker needs to sanction those ministers who repeatedly flout its rules.

Bringing ministers to the chamber to explain why written questions have not been answered would be a modest start.