Just hours before he left office last week, a DUP minister blocked eight separate News Letter Freedom of Information requests for documents relating to the RHI scheme.
Economy Minister Simon Hamilton – who must sign off on each FoI response before civil servants issue it – had not responded to multiple FoI requests dating back to mid-December, something which was a breach of the transparency law.
If the responses had still not been responded to – even with a formal refusal – by Friday, the permanent secretary of the department would have had the authority to authorise the release of the information.
If Mr Hamilton’s department had issued refusal notices after 20 days, they could have been appealed to the Information Commissioner who can order the department to release the information if it has wrongly withheld information.
However, on the afternoon of election day, refusal responses began flowing through to the News Letter and continued in the hours before Mr Hamilton left office at 10pm.
Even by the notoriously closed nature of some Stormont departments, one of the refusals was extraordinary.
We had requested a copy of “all declarations of interest by the minister’s special adviser (Spad), John Robinson, since he joined the department last year”.
Mr Robinson is the DUP’s former chief spin doctor who was appointed as Mr Hamilton’s Spad – a hand-picked post commanding a salary of up to £92,000 – at the Department for the Economy (DFE) last year.
After allegations in the Assembly by former DUP minister Jonathan Bell on January 16, the DUP released a statement which said: “John Robinson has no personal interest in the poultry industry. His family home farm have chicken houses but are not part of the RHI scheme and never have been recipients or applicants.”
However, the following day, after specific questions from the Press Association, Mr Robinson – who at that point was a key figure in attempting to clear up the RHI mess – said that his father-in-law had two RHI boilers.
He stressed that the enterprise was entirely legitimate, was not an abuse of the scheme and that neither he nor his wife had any direct involvement with the business or RHI.
In the days to come, Mr Robinson said that he would take no further part in RHI issues at the department and confirmed that he had not declared the issue when he was appointed.
The DUP said at the time: “No written declaration of interest was made to the department at the time as John felt there was no such conflict ... John regrets this in that it has allowed a situation to develop where there is a perception of a conflict.”
At that point, the News Letter asked the department for details of all Mr Robinson’s declarations of interest when he was appointed.
Despite the fact that point of declaring interests is for individuals to demonstrate that they are being open and transparent about issues from which they may personally benefit, the department has now refused that request, claiming that it was prohibited by law from even stating whether Mr Robinson had made any declaration.
The department said that the information “relates to third party personal data which may or may not be held by the department” and therefore it could not release it due to Section 40 (5) of the Freedom of Information Act.
It added: “This is an absolute exemption and as such does not require the completion of a public interest test.”
However, on December 13 the News Letter had asked the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) for identical information relating to Andrew Crawford, the special adviser to the then DUP agriculture minister, Michelle McIlveen.
That request was also not responded to within the legal timeframe of 20 working days.
However, on March 3 – the first day that the civil service, rather than the minister, the DUP’s Michelle McIlveen, was responsible for taking the decision – a full response was issued to the News Letter, with nothing withheld.
That response included an exact copy of Mr Crawford’s letter in which he declared various potential conflicts of interest to the permanent secretary at the time of his appointment, showing that he had acted properly.
However, it also made clear that it released the information despite Dr Crawford’s desire for it to be withheld.
In an indication that civil servants had prepared the response for release in January and it had been politically blocked since then, the letter is dated “XX January”.
The department’s response explains its reasoning. Setting out numerous arguments in favour of disclosure, it said that “at least partial disclosure of this type of information would be expected of any senior official of Grade 5 level or above within DAERA in the event of an enquiry”.
It said that “disclosure of the information will prevent any allegation that Dr Crawford had failed to notify DAERA of his conflict of interest” and that “the public have a right to know that anyone in a position of influence will not misuse their influence for their own gain and that the department actively monitor this”.
And it said that “failure to disclose the requested information could, in light of recent media events be used to cause embarrassment to the minister and the department in that it may be perceived that there is something to hide”. It also highlighted that the information was not “sensitive personal data”.
The department set out several counter-arguments, including that the information could “cause distress” to individuals identified as a result.
It also added: “The third party to whom this information request relates to, Dr Andrew Crawford, has advised that he wishes the information to be exempted”.
Documents show that DUP Spad declared farm properly
The information released by the Department of Agriculture shows that DUP Spad Andrew Crawford properly declared several agricultural interests when he was appointed last June.
In a letter to the department’s permanent secretary, Noel Lavery, he said: “I want to register the fact that I am the sole owner of a farm in County Tyrone.
“I manage this land by keeping livestock and have applied for financial support under the basic payment, the greening payment and the young farmer top-up schemes.
“My immediate family are also involved in agriculture. My father, two brothers and sister are involved in farming and avail of schemes open to the sector in Northern Ireland.”
Dr Crawford went on to assure the permanent secretary: “I will not use my position to either advantage my own farm business or the interests of my family.”
The department also said that “with a view to being as open and transparent as possible” it was releasing the reply which Mr Lavery had sent in response – even though that was not strictly within the ambit of the information requested by the News Letter.
It shows that Mr Lavery wrote to “confirm that your applications and those of your family will be dealt with in exactly the same way as any other applicants”.
He advised the Spad that if he was working with officials “in regard to any matters pertaining to your applications for financial support, or if you family members have cause to do so, then these communications should come through the normal channels by which business is transacted”.
He went on: “You should not use your relationship with DAERA staff arising from your role as special advisor to pursue communications in a way that might give rise to a conflict of interest, whether real or perceived”.
He added: “I would counsel you to be vigilant, err on the side of caution, and if in doubt on an issue which might lead to a conflict of interest, please seek my advice”.