A Sinn Fein minister asked civil servants not to attend a key meeting after which policy was controversially changed, meaning that no minutes of what was discussed can now be made public, the News Letter can reveal.
Ten days ago Sinn Fein furiously denied the claim by David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, that officials had deliberately not kept records of many meetings involving DUP and Sinn Fein ministers in a bid to thwart potential Freedom of Information requests due to the fact that the two parties were “sensitive to criticism”.
However, this newspaper has obtained evidence which shows that just over a year ago the then Sinn Fein infrastructure minister, Chris Hazzard had been due to bring civil servants to a meeting with Sinn Fein MP Paul Maskey and taxi company owners.
However, at the last minute Mr Hazzard told the officials not to attend, meaning that there was no departmental record of what happened.
Fifteen days later, the then minister announced a significant policy change. His department announced that Class A taxis – the vast bulk of taxis in Belfast – would be allowed to use the bus lanes on the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) routes on a trial basis.
The decision, which came in the purdah period before the Assembly election when major or controversial decisions are generally not taken by ministers, was welcomed by many of those involved in the taxi industry but fiercely opposed by cyclists and trade unionists who represent public transport workers.
The News Letter has seen departmental documentation which states that the then minister met with “Mr Paul Maskey MP and some local taxi depot owners on Wednesday 1 February 2017.”
The documentation goes on to say: “The email sent to DFI private office on 31 January 2017 at 15.20 indicates that officials were to attend this meeting along with Minister Hazzard, however on the day of the meeting the minister decided that he would attend on his own and officials were not therefore required.
“The department does not have any record of what was discussed at the meeting and there is no record of the minister’s special adviser having met with Mr Maskey.”
The decision is particularly significant because in the absence of any minister in the department officials are continuing to implement the policy set by Mr Hazzard.
Mr Maskey has continued to be vocal in his support for taxis being allowed into bus lanes. Two months ago the West Belfast MP publicly pressed Department of Infrastructure Permanent Secretary Peter May to “do what is right here for ordinary working-class taxi drivers and for the improvement of traffic in Belfast”.
However, trade union Unite has been among those raising concerns about the situation, stating that “unelected department officials appear more concerned with appeasing the private taxi lobby than with defending public transport provision”.
Earlier this month, in the wake of Mr Sterling’s comments, former Sinn Fein finance minster Máirtín O Muilleoir insisted on BBC Radio Ulster that he and his colleagues had “conducted our business in a transparent manner”.
When it was suggested that the civil service were not taking minutes due to the wishes of Sinn Fein and the DUP, Mr O Muilleoir said: “I repudiate that and I reject that and it’s claptrap as it refers to Sinn Fein.”
He then went on to demand action against civil servants who had not minuted meetings, saying: “The civil servants who were involved in not minuting meetings or decisions need to be brought to account – they have an obligation ... and ministers who were involved in this type of activity, which is unacceptable, which we repudiate – DUP ministers – they need to be brought to account.
“But for our part, we have no hand, act or part in the type of behaviour which we are now told happened around RHI with DUP ministers and civil servants.”
When asked why Mr Hazzard requested that officials did not attend the meeting and why he did not provide his own written note of what happened, Sinn Fein said in a statement: “Sinn Fein ministers adhered to all protocols relating to the conduct of their ministerial business.
“It is, of course, for a minister to decide who should accompany them to a meeting. This would depend on the nature of the meeting and the level of support required.
“In this case, the nature of the meeting changed to an informal discussion between Paul Maskey and Chris Hazzard.”