Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s department has argued that it should be allowed to withhold information if releasing it might cost the First Minister and Deputy First Minister votes.
The extraordinary attempt to circumvent the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act was made in response to a request from the News Letter for the department’s ‘risk register’.
However, the Information Commissioner, the watchdog which enforces the open government law, has dismissed the argument and ordered that the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) provide the information by May 1.
A formal decision notice upheld this newspaper’s appeal against Stormont Castle’s decision.
That 10-page document reveals that OFMDFM “argued specifically that disclosure of the requested information ‘... could prejudice ministers’ electoral prospects and would most certainly have a ‘chilling effect’ on the future development of corporate risk registers’.”
In dismissing that argument, the commissioner noted: “While the electoral prospects of individuals are not strictly a relevant factor when weighing the public interest in the disclosure of information, the commissioner is of the view that access rights afforded by FoI constitute an accountability tool which can help the public make up its mind for the purpose of participation in democratic elections.
“Contrary to OFMDFM’s assertion, this is therefore a public interest argument in favour of disclosure in respect of supporting accountability and transparency.”
The decision notice also reveals that the decision to refuse the original request was taken personally by “the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly”.
The department also argued that releasing the risk registers – which record the issues causing concern within OFMDFM – would “inhibit the free and frank exchange of views” and could turn future such registers into “anodyne documents”.
But the commissioner rejected all of those arguments.
OFMDFM has repeatedly been found to have broken the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.
Delays – which in some cases extended to more than 300 days past the 20-day legal limit – to answering requests led in late 2012 to the department being one of just four public bodies across the UK to be monitored by the commissioner.
In one instance it only answered a request the night before the applicant was to appear in the High Court to ask for the law to be enforced.
OFMDFM did not respond to a request for comment.