Civil service minute-taking policy under investigation

NICS head David Sterling giving evidence to the RHI inquiry
NICS head David Sterling giving evidence to the RHI inquiry

A watchdog body’s “deep concern” over Stormont procedures designed to frustrate Freedom of Information requests has triggered an audit of the NI Civil Service (NICS).

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) probe was sparked by the evidence of NICS head David Sterling to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry in March.

Mr Sterling, who has effectively been running Northern Ireland since the collapse of devolution, said several meetings during the life of the DUP/Sinn Fein administration were not minuted – partly due to ministers’ desire for secrecy.

He said the two parties were “sensitive to criticism” and that officials had “got into the habit of not recording all meetings”.

The claims alarmed the information commissioner Elizabeth Denham who wrote to Mr Sterling, informing him of her intention to undertake an audit – to establish if “the practice of the NI Civil Service conforms with the codes of practice,” under FOIA.

In a letter dated March 15 – released to the Irish News and subsequently to the News Letter – Ms Denham told the top civil servant that failing to record minutes “frustrates the principles of openness, accountability and transparency which lie behind FOIA”.

She said: “It is with deep concern that I read reports of comments attributed to you at the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) on March 13. Your testimony indicated that minutes of meetings may not be taken in order to frustrate Freedom of Information requests and have a ‘safe space where they could think the unthinkable and not necessarily have it all recorded’.”

Ms Denham goes on to say: “Effective records creation and management is the cornerstone of the legislation and I am concerned that practices in the NICS could be falling short of what is expected.”

In reply Mr Sterling said he would “very much welcome discussion” on the issues alluded to in his evidence “so that we can both have a full and informed understanding of the position, which I believe is more complex than the surrounding commentary may have suggested, and of your own concerns”.

On Tuesday the ICO said: “We have engaged with NICS to identify some initial steps needed to improve records management across the service. Once these steps are complete, we will undertake an audit to assess the position.”

A spokesperson for The Executive Office said discussions had taken place with the ICO on these matters “with a commitment to further dialogue”.